Although one could argue that at the time of this writing Oscar winner Cate Blanchett's star is brighter than that of Ralph Fiennes, but that certainly wasn't so in 1997 when Oscar and Lucinda was in theatrical release. The pair shared a similar amount of feature film experience and years in front of the camera, but by 1997 Fiennes had already headlined two Best Picture winners (Schindler's List and The English Patient) and had achieved household name status in the United States starring in other Hollywood films such as Quiz Show and Strange Days. Blanchett was essentially an unknown at the time, with her breakout performance in Elizabeth a year away. Consequently, and in spite of the pair of first names in the title, this treatment of Peter Carey's novel focuses on Fienne's character Oscar, with Blanchett's Lucinda in what I would only describe as a featured supporting role. In a nutshell, the movie concentrates much more of its running time on what Oscar does and thinks — it shares much less about Lucinda, beyond how her actions serve to inspire Oscar's.
I began with the originality of the film and it's worth discussing. Although the film is a character study, it's one that relies on a unique plot and set of circumstances in order to keep moving forward. I want to be careful to not give anything away, because even though gambling is a significant element of the narrative, one bet in particular defines the second half of the movie and it shouldn't be spoiled. Suffice it to say that the movie covers territory (as literary adaptations often do) that aren't part of the typical Hollywood narrative formula — and this one goes much further afield. It's occasionally tender, often unsettling, and in at least one instance abhorrent — all played out within constructs of love: platonic, religious, and obsessive.
What astonishing about Oscar and Lucinda is that all of the movie's drama is brought to life through Fienne's performance, which may be his best. — he's sublime in a role so difficult most actors wouldn't go near it. Oscar and Lucinda was released with the Academy Awards in mind: it hit theaters on December 31, 1997, the last day of eligibility. This was the year defined by the competition between Titanic, As Good as it Gets and L.A. Confidential, with the comedy film The Full Monty also garnering a Best Picture nomination. I certainly would have argued for this film instead. Yet in spite of broad critical acclaim this garnered only a single nomination, in the Best Costume category. Get your hands on a copy of this and decide for yourself.
Oscar and Lucinda (1997)
Directed by Gillian Armstrong
Starring Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett
Released by Fox Searchlight
Running time: 132 minutes
Availability: DVD, Netflix, Fox Movie Channel