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Oscar and Lucinda (1997)


Mid-19th century England. Oscar Hopkins (Ralph Fiennes) is a trainee Anglican priest studying at Oxford University. Taken to the horse races by fellow student Wardley-Fish (Barnaby Kay), Oscar develops an uncontrollable passion for gambling. Despite giving his winnings to charity, Oscar considers himself ‘vile’ and decides to migrate to the colony of New South Wales as penance. En route to Australia he meets Lucinda Leplastrier (Cate Blanchett), an heiress who owns a Sydney glass factory and shares Oscar’s obsession for games of chance. Forming an instant connection, Oscar and Lucinda’s friendship raises eyebrows in conservative society. Lucinda’s scandalous reputation forces her friend, Reverend Dennis Hasset (Ciaran Hinds), to relocate to Bellingen, a remote town in northern New South Wales.

Oscar’s association with Lucinda results in his removal from the church. Their short-lived pact to stop gambling is broken when Lucinda shows Oscar a scale model of a house made of glass and iron. Oscar is determined to build the structure as a church and transport it to Reverend Hasset as a gift for his congregation. He bets his inheritance against Lucinda’s fortune that he can deliver the church by the next Good Friday. Lucinda agrees to the wager, leaving Oscar to make a perilous journey through rugged territory with local guide Mr Jeffries (Richard Roxburgh).

Curator’s notes

Following her acclaimed 1994 adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868), director Gillian Armstrong set her sights on Oscar and Lucinda, the 1988 Booker Prize-winning novel by Australian author Peter Carey. Featuring a strong international cast and distributed in the US by Fox Searchlight, the art-house offshoot of major Hollywood studio 20th Century Fox, Oscar and Lucinda was a prestige production made on a scale and budget (approximately $16 million) few Australian period pieces other than Australia (2008) and Phar Lap (1983) can match.

The screenplay by Laura Jones (Armstrong’s High Tide, 1987; The Portrait of a Lady, 1996) faithfully follows Carey’s story and dedicates the first 40 minutes of screen time to the backgrounds of Oscar and Lucinda prior to their fateful meeting on a ship bound for New South Wales (see clip one). The unhurried establishment of the central characters is crucial to the film’s success.

In England we see the severe childhood of Oscar Hopkins, whose father Theophilus (Clive Russell) is a strict member of the Plymouth Brethren sect who boxes his son around the ears for accepting pudding on Christmas Day and scolds him for accepting 'the food of Satan’. Deeply religious yet troubled by his upbringing, Oscar is attracted to gambling by the noblest of intentions (he gives his winnings to charity) but cannot reconcile his methods and motivations until he meets Lucinda.

Like many of Armstrong’s heroines, Lucinda is an independent-minded young woman who wants to break free of social constraints. Cate Blanchett’s excellent performance perfectly captures Lucinda’s spirit as she drinks and gambles in male company without shame. A sequence in which Lucinda attends a Chinese gambling house is particularly memorable.

The intriguing story moves up several gears once Oscar and Lucinda find each other – the obsessive gambler and the compulsive gambler making a perfect match. But their chaste friendship comes at considerable cost. Oscar is dismissed from the church and Lucinda’s reputation forces her close friend Reverend Hasset to sever ties and move north to the remote community of Bellingen.

The final third of the movie brings to mind Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982), about a 19th century Irishman who hauls a steamer over a hill in the Amazon to realise his dream of building an opera house in the jungle. Here it is a glass church designed by Lucinda which Oscar decides to build and transport on a seemingly impossible journey to Hasset in Bellingen, some 400 miles away (see clip two).

The church represents redemption for Oscar, who has been banished from Anglicanism but remains faithful and makes a personal pact with his God to deliver the magnificent structure to His followers. The sight of Oscar floating down the river inside the church (see clip three) is one of the most beguiling in Australian cinema.

Owing much to its award-winning production values – including Janet Patterson’s Oscar-nominated costume design, Geoffrey Simpson’s cinematography and Luciana Arrighi’s production design – Oscar and Lucinda paints a vivid portrait of Australia as a land of opportunity, risk and danger – the latter shown in a brutal confrontation between Oscar’s guide, Jeffries, and Aborigines en route to Bellingen.

It is the thrill of risk that unites its protagonists and prompts them to wager everything they have on the outcome of Oscar’s mission. By the time Oscar approaches Bellingen and the first shards of glass fall around him, Gillian Armstrong’s film has succeeded mightily in conveying one of the central tenets of Peter Carey’s novel – that everything in life is a gamble.

Oscar and Lucinda was released in Australian cinemas on 22 January 1998. It was nominated for Best Costume Design at the 1997 Oscars and won AFI Awards in 1998 for Cinematography (Simpson), Costume Design (Patterson), Production Design (Arrighi), Sound (Andrew Plain, Ben Osmo, Gethin Creagh) and Original Music Score (Thomas Newman). It also received AFI nominations for Best Actress (Blanchett) and Adapted Screenplay (Jones). Geoffrey Simpson won the Cinematography prize from the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia.