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Heart of Glass

This period tale of two gamblers -- Oscar, a failed minister, and Lucinda, a glassworks owner -- is too wispy to be an objet d'art and too clumsy to be a toy. Its key symbol is a tiny glass teardrop known as the "Prince Rupert drop," which can withstand a blow from a sledgehammer but will splinter with a squeeze from a pair of blunt-nose pliers. The teardrop embodies the simultaneous strength and fragility of glass, and it inspires the heroine to buy the glassworks. The Prince Rupert drop is a pretty paradox of an object, but it's not a firm-enough hook for a 132-minute movie that crawls across much of mid-nineteenth-century Australia. Oscar and Lucinda exudes a fey smugness; a half-hour into it, you want to take the sledgehammer and pliers up to the projection booth.

In a change of pace from his roles as the menacing Nazi commandant of 1993's Schindler's List and the romantic Nazi collaborator of 1996's The English Patient, Ralph Fiennes plays Oscar, a comically pathetic British seminarian who's both fidgety and prone to faints. Born into a fundamentalist rural sect in England, Oscar converts to the relatively free-and-easy Anglican Church after tasting a forbidden Christmas pudding. While studying for the ministry at Oxford, he develops a profitable addiction to gambling. (He reconciles the hobby with his religion by using the money he wins to cover his expenses and giving away the surplus.) He volunteers for priestly service Down Under partly in hopes of ridding himself of the habit. But on the voyage to Sydney he meets Lucinda (Cate Blanchett), a headstrong heiress who bought her glass-blowing factory as an act of self-determination and who has taken up cards as a diversion. The one funny, sexy bit in the movie occurs when they discover each other's secret passion. Seized by the spirits of God and chance, Oscar, in a grand burst of rationalization, 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 Oscar and Lucinda (I did after seeing the film), you expect the pair to get married and plot extravagant capers. What a letdown! All they do is scandalize greater Sydney with their gaming. Oscar is smitten with Lucinda and eventually moves in with her, albeit platonically. The story hinges on a disastrous misapprehension: He grows to believe that she pines for the Rev. Dennis Hasset (Ciaran Hinds), her onetime 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, traveling instead along a torturous inland path that crosses aborigine territory. (Even this requires river travel.)

To understand why Oscar thinks that Lucinda loves Hasset, you will have to read the novel. There we learn that that she has deliberately fooled Oscar in order to preserve their relationship: "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. But watching the movie without the benefit of having read the novel is like seeing a series of illustrations without captions or text, or following a recipe without tasting the ingredients.

For example: Oscar and Lucinda are designed to be notably different. She's compulsive, he's obsessive; she's a new-style feminist, he's a drab scarecrow out of Dickens. 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. The one man of traditional phallic force here -- the leader of the expedition into the outback (Richard Roxburgh) -- is also the villain: a cold-blooded killer of aborigines. What's striking about Armstrong's best movies (including 1984's Mrs. Soffel, with Diane Keaton and Mel Gibson, and 1987's 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 1994's Little Women. But film techniques that worked for a classic stymie the transformation of a self-conscious postmodern novel such as Carey's. After Beth dies in Little Women and we see those keepsakes in her box as sacred heirlooms, they sum up the primal sanctity of the nineteenth-century home. We never think of them as visual similes or metaphors; their meaning bubbles up from the story's dramatic core. In Oscar and Lucinda, all we have at the center is a Christmas pudding and the Prince Rupert 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 1951's The African Queen, writer James Agee told director John Huston that Humphrey Bogart and Katharine 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. 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 such as 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 literature or 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.

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Michael Sragow

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