Broken glass

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 by blunt-nosed pliers. It embodies the simultaneous strength and fragility of glass and inspires the heroine to buy her glassworks. 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; 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 bought her glass-blowing factory as an act of self-determination and has 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 Reverend Dennis Hasset (Ciaran Hinds), her onetime heartthrob and advisor 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 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 carrottops. Their relationship seems narcissistic or incestuous, or even hermaphroditic. Cate Blanchett's liberated woman and Fiennes' confused sensitive man come off as sisters under the skin.

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. 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.

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.

Oscar and Lucinda.
Directed by Gillian Armstrong. Written by Laura Jones, from Peter Carey's novel. Starring Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett. Opens Friday.


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