Set in 19th-century Australia, this tale of two gamblers -- Oscar, a failed minister, and Lucinda, a glassworks owner -- is too wispy to be an art thing and too heavy to be a toy. Its key symbol is a tiny glass teardrop. The "Prince Rupert drop" cannot be smashed with a sledgehammer but can be splintered with a squeeze of a blunt-nosed pliers. The Prince Rupert drop is a pretty paradox of an object, but it may give viewers the wrong idea. Oscar and Lucinda exudes a fey kind of smugness; 40 minutes in, you want to take the sledgehammer and pliers up to the projection booth.
Ralph Fiennes, in a bumbling change of pace from ravaged Nazis, plays a comic-pathetic character who's both fidgety and prone to faints. Oscar comes from a fundamentalist rural-British sect; he converts to Anglicanism after tasting forbidden Christmas pudding. He then develops an addiction to gambling while studying for the ministry at Oxford. (He covers his expenses and gives away the surplus winnings.) Shipping out for service Down Under, he meets Lucinda (Cate Blanchett), a headstrong heiress who (inspired by the Prince Rupert drop) has bought her glass factory as an act of self-determination and taken up cards as a release. The one funny, sexy bit in the movie is when they discover each other's secret passion. Seized by the spirits of God and Chance, Oscar proclaims, "We bet that there is a God. We bet our life on it."
In a way, it's a coming-out scene, but nothing comes out of it. If you haven't read Peter Carey's 1988 Booker Prize-winning novel (I did so afterward), you expect them to get married and plot extravagant capers. What a disappointment -- all they do is scandalize greater Sydney by playing rummy. The story hinges on a disastrous misapprehension. Although smitten with Lucinda -- and living with her, albeit platonically -- Oscar grows to believe that she is pining for the Rev. Dennis Hasset (Ciaran Hinds), her one-time heartthrob and adviser on glass. As proof of his own selfless and overwhelming love, Oscar proposes to deliver a momentous gift to Hasset's mission in a distant parish: a prefabricated church, made of glass. Because Oscar hates water, he shuns the obvious sea route; he travels along a torturous inland path that crosses Aborigine territory -- and still requires river travel.
To understand why Oscar thinks that Lucinda loves Hasset you would have to read the novel, in which we learn that she's deliberately fooling him: "The misunderstanding allowed them to share the house, to be friends." No matter how hard the filmmakers work their narrator (Geoffrey Rush, as Oscar's great-grandson), he can't make the damn thing explicable, much less bring it to life. The director, Gillian Armstrong, and the screenwriter, Laura Jones, have raided the book for local color and period slang and have stayed true to its motifs and incidents; academics who teach its glass and water imagery and its religious and social themes may find the film a useful gloss. But watching the movie cold is like seeing a series of illustrations without captions or text, or following a recipe without tasting the ingredients.
Oscar and Lucinda, for example, are designed to be virtual opposites: She's compulsive, he's obsessive; she's a new-style bloomer girl, he's a drab scarecrow out of Dickens. But in the event, they emerge as twin carrot-tops. Their relationship seems narcissistic or incestuous, or even hermaphroditic. Blanchett's liberated woman and Fiennes' confused sensitive man come off as sisters under the skin. In Oscar and Lucinda, the one man here of traditional phallic force -- the leader of the expedition into the Outback -- is also the villain: a coldblooded killer of Aborigines. What's striking about Armstrong's best movies (including Mrs. Soffel, with Diane Keaton and Mel Gibson, and High Tide, with Judy Davis and Colin Friels) is the strength of their men. The one time Oscar makes love, he's so passive he barely moves the requisite muscle.
Armstrong has striven to give moviegoers the gestalt of the book as she did so marvelously in Little Women. But techniques that worked for a classic like Alcott's stymie the transformation of a self-conscious, postmodern novel like Carey's. After Beth dies in Little Women, and we see the keepsakes in her box as sacred heirlooms, they sum up the primal sanctity of the 19th-century home. We never think of them as visual similes or metaphors; their meaning bubbles up from the dramatic core. In Oscar and Lucinda, all we have at the center is a Christmas pudding and Prince Rupert's drop. The movie turns into an overwrought fretwork of fancy images and ideas -- a highbrow notions counter.
When they were collaborating on the screenplay to The African Queen, James Agee told John Huston that Bogart and Hepburn's trip up the river could symbolize the act of love. Huston responded: "Oh, Christ, Jim, tell me something I can understand. This isn't like a novel. This is a screenplay. You've got to demonstrate everything, Jim. People on the screen [are already] symbols. You can't have symbolism within symbolism." Oscar and Lucinda proves Huston's point all too well. Using a flashy scarlet-streaked color scheme, opulent costumes, and a heavenly-choir soundtrack to cushion weighty matters like the river journey, Armstrong wants this to be a magic carpet ride into a New South Wales heart of darkness. Instead, Oscar and Lucinda is like an Australian lit and women's studies syllabus tied up in party ribbons.