Gillian Armstrong's eagerly awaited film of Peter Carey's novel Oscar and Lucinda offers a grand, fanciful panorama of instantly intriguing elements. The tale of the fervently spiritual Oscar (Ralph Fiennes) and the rebellious free spirit Lucinda (Cate Blanchett) is an elegant melodrama of magically intertwined destinies – and also of personal repression, social constraint and grievous misunderstanding.
The setting is just as important and significant as the characters. In a tradition that includes Campion's The Piano (1993) and novels such as Delia Falconer's The Service of Clouds, Oscar and Lucinda pivots between a fragile, burgeoning civilisation and a natural landscape that is both threatening and sublime. With so many attractive cards on the table, it is something of a puzzle why this movie fizzles on so many levels.
I admire many of Armstrong's films (including The Last Days of Chez Nous  and Little Women ), but Oscar and Lucinda sits, in her career, at the level of Mrs Soffel (1984). It shares with that earlier film a static, bloodless, emotionally detached quality. Worse still, it exhibits the inert, stylistically timid, picture-book veneer associated with the period films of Merchant Ivory. We are very far from the immediacy, humour and passionate engagement of Scorsese's The Age of Innocence (1993) or Visconti's The Leopard (1963).
Carey's fiction has not been well served by the cinema. Bliss (1985), in both its original release version and the subsequent "director's cut", was an overblown, failed art movie. The forgotten SF spectacular Dead End Drive-In (1986) took a hit-and-miss, pulp approach to one of his short stories. And Carey's literary fans tend to overlook the fact that he had a large creative hand in the script for Wim Wenders' dire Until the End of the World (1991).
Part of the problem with Armstrong's film arises from its palpable fear of dealing with the stranger, less user-friendly aspects of Carey's writing. Not only is Carey given to odd, baroque convolutions and surrealist affectations that are rare in mainstream cinema; he is also, arguably, one of our least "humanist" writers. It would take a modern-day Erich von Stroheim or Joseph Losey to capture the more grotesque and entropic elements of Carey's vision.
Laura Jones's screenplay does not focus the sprawling plot material of Oscar and Lucinda. Like many recent adaptations of large, serious, "important" novels – The English Patient (1996) and The Portrait of a Lady (1996, also written by Jones) come to mind – it turns a vast "chronicle" into a spray of familiar, reassuring, all-too-humanist incidents.
Although its plot is perfectly simple and clear, Oscar and Lucinda makes less sense than such supposedly cryptic, "difficult" films as The End of Violence (1997) or Lost Highway (1997). It is impossible to discern, through the mushy veil of the movie, the central, cohering theme of the novel. Instead, we are treated to moviedom's usual "ode to life" in the epic mode: birth, death, lies, dreams, honour, folly and desire pass by in an indifferent procession.
Viewers have already been quick to liken the film to Herzog's Fitzcarraldo (1982) because of its mad, driven artist-figure, Beresford's Black Robe (1991) for its glimpse of imperialist violence in a lush wilderness, or even the euphoric Hollywood romantic comedies of old (since our heroes sometimes resemble two merry, childlike social misfits). But Oscar and Lucinda activates any or all of these models only fleetingly and glancingly. Lacking a true core, it meanders from one Big Theme to the next, leaving us dissatisfied at every turn.
Fiennes and Blanchett do fine work but they, too, are hampered by the problems of the adaptation. Lucinda and Oscar are not exactly "characters" in the typical movie sense; they are more like static, largely unchanging bundles of drives, itches and mannerisms. They resemble clinical case studies in neurosis rather than human beings with an evolving, three-dimensional psychology – as Geoffrey Rush's treacly voice-over narration informs us, where one is obsessive, the other is compulsive.
Finally, Oscar and Lucinda is a curious, frustrating love story – and I suspect that, for many viewers, its appeal will depend on the strength or weakness of its romantic angle. It has often been said that Australian cinema baulks in the face of full-blown, passionate romance – whether requited or not.
Armstrong's films, however excellent or stirring they can sometimes be, are prime instances of this syndrome. Family feeling or the bonds of friendship always register more profoundly in her work than the union of couples. Is it any wonder, then, that these naughty cherubs Lucinda and Oscar seem ultimately more like brother and sister – ethereal soulmates – than tragically disconnected lovers?
© Adrian Martin January 1998