The cover of my DVD shows a confident Ralph Fiennes facing the viewer with a playing card in his hand, while Cate Blanchett modestly glances downward behind him. “Oscar” looks like a card sharp, and “Lucinda” a shrinking violet.
I am forced to conclude that the people in charge of marketing never saw the film, or perversely decided to twist its message. In fact, Oscar violates most societal expectations of manly behavior, while Lucinda shocks the society of her day by taking unfeminine liberties.
Missing from most reviews of book and film is the role of gender in the story of these two misfits. Each is reared in sheltered rural isolation by a single parent of the same gender, who singularly fails to prepare his/her offspring for the social realities involved in performing one’s own gender and negotiating alliances with members of the other.
Sensitive, delicate Oscar grows up as the son of a fanatical non-conformist Devon preacher whose most pressing parental concern seems to be protecting his son from the “sin” of tasting a Christmas pudding. Lucinda’s feminist mother attempts to prove that she and her daughter can run an Australian farm on their own, but then sells the land out from under Lucinda, and dies without explaining her belief that they had failed.
In many ways, the pair are the unlikeliest of lovers. Oscar’s life is ruled by his own idiosyncratic yet fervent brand of piety, which amounts to a theology of cryptic omens from God (“if this be thy will, give me a sign!”) and the sacralization of Pascal’s Wager. Lucinda is a freethinker, reared in happy ignorance of the religious debates that consumed so much ink and psychic energy in the nineteenth century Anglophone world, but now seem irrelevant (Puseyites! Latitudinarians!).
Yet Oscar and Lucinda have more in common than appears at first sight.
Oscar is poverty-stricken in the extreme, except for the occasional windfalls he reaps through obsessive study of the racing forms. Lucinda is an heiress against her will, burdened by the guilt and responsibility of her money, who finds relief in compulsively divesting herself of sums large and small at the faro table.
Oscar is oblivious to how other people perceive him. At Oxford, he is the Odd Bod, an awkward, ill-clad, fidgeting, hand-flapping, excitable stick figure with milky white skin and flaming red hair. Lucinda is almost equally oblivious to how people perceive her. In the stifling provincial society of Sydney, she is a brazen wild child in Bloomers, striding about like a man, ignoring the rules of modest behavior, and expecting to be taken seriously in the manufacturing world of Sydney. Each is truly a misfit, but imbued with a sense of self and a stubbornness that makes them unwilling to conform.
A recipe for disaster, of course. This is not a romance novel. Yet it is a romantic novel, by which I mean that it is ultimately about the mystery, rarity and ultimate fragility of true love.
Peter Carey takes his time describing the lives of both Oscar and Lucinda before they ever meet, so that when they do, you already know what makes them tick. Carey is one of those writers whose language is vividly, sensuously pleasing, yet never strained or self-conscious. One of my favorite passages is a conversation between young Oscar and his naturalist father about a treasured chest of buttons that is Oscar’s only memento of his dead mother:
On Christmas Day, his father said, “You have reclassified your buttons, I see.”
The buttons were on the window ledge. It was a deep sill. Mrs. Williams had put the buttons there when she set the table.
Oscar said, “Yes, Father.”
“The taxonomic principle being colour. The spectrum from left to right, with size the second principle of order.”
“Very good,” said Theophilus.
There is a third major character in the book, the Reverend Dennis Hasset, whose relatively small role can only be described as pivotal. This means that in the film, he had to be played by Ciarán Hinds. Here is an excerpt from the Reverend Hasset’s first meeting with Lucinda:
Dennis Hasset was much touched by her. She wore an unusual garment: grey silk with a sort of trouser underneath. Dennis Hasset–no matter what his bishop thought–was not a radical, and this garment shocked him, well, not quite shocked, but let us say it gave a certain unsettling note to their interview, although the discord was muted by the quality of the silk and the obvious skill of the dressmaking. These were things he knew about. The garment declared its owner to be at once wealthy and not quite respectable. She was “smart” but not a beauty. There was about her, though, this sense of distillation.
Hasset and Lucinda too share a fascination–with the beauty of glass and the mysteries of its manufacture. Glass, in all its paradoxical qualities, is the ruling metaphor of the book. Solid in the moment, time reveals that glass is in fact a changeable liquid. In the form of the oddity known as the Prince Rupert’s drop, glass is impervious to the blow of a sledgehammer. Yet the same drop of glass will burst into a rain of fine powder if its tail is gently clipped. There’s a piquant scene where Hasset brings out a Prince Rupert’s drop and a pair of pliers, reveling in the anticipation of the treat. Lucinda begs him not to destroy it, leaving him puzzled and disgruntled.
Caution: Semi-Spoilers Ahead, But I Don’t Give It All Away
The Reverend Hasset helps Lucinda in her attempt to realize her mother’s dream by purchasing a glass factory. He falls in love with her, even as he disapproves of her behavior, and even as the scandal of their continuing association grows. Hasset is just enough of a rebel to be irresistibly drawn to her. He describes himself as “a cold man warming himself at someone else’s fire.” But he cannot imagine himself married to a woman like Lucinda.
Then Hasset’s bishop puts an end to the idyll by banishing him to a miserable pioneer hamlet in the outback, where the parishioners don’t even have a church, and the last pastor was chucked into the Bellingen river.
“So,” she said, nodding her head, “there is a part of you that wishes to be sent away?”
“Quite a large part,” he admitted.
(Don’t even get me started on which part of Dennis Hasset is in question.) The rejected Lucinda flees to London for solace, as Oscar flips a coin to decide whether he should quit England to devote himself to a missionary life in New South Wales.
Oscar and Lucinda’s eventual meeting and chaste passion brings them both social disapproval and ecstatic joy. But Oscar is haunted by the incorrect belief that Lucinda loves her old friend Hasset, to whom she regularly writes. His growing desperation leads him to make one last wager that dramatically changes the direction of the story. Grandiose, terrifying and unlikely things begin to happen. But good stories are rarely about what is likely.
I found the acting in this film sublime. At the time, Cate Blanchett was a relative unknown, but this film brought well-deserved recognition. Her beauty is breathtaking, (though she looks older than the teenaged Lucinda of the book), and her acting is heartfelt.
At a robust six feet, Ralph Fiennes is hardly a delicate flower like Oscar, and yet somehow he manages to convey all of Oscar’s physical awkwardness, restlessness, and vulnerability. It is a masterly performance.
Clive Russell is especially believable as Oscar’s devout father, and Tom Wilkinson as Hugh Stratton, Oscar’s Anglican mentor. Finally, Ciarán Hinds expertly conveys Dennis Hasset’s conflicted feelings about Lucinda with subtle changes of expression, as befits his buttoned-up character. I was rather sorry not to have a chance to see him unbuttoned, but that would never do, would it?
The cinematography and direction of the film are exquisite. Each scene is a visual wonder, from the butterflies and shells in Theophilus Hopkins’ Devon dining room, to the collection of glass treasures in Lucinda’s bedchamber (and her exquisite wardrobe), to the lurid interior of a Chinese betting parlor in Sydney, and the vast, subtropical landscapes of New South Wales. The most haunting and surreal image is that of a great glass church traveling majestically down the Bellingen river.
For the film, the ending was changed. I have mixed feelings about this. The ending in the book seemed right for Lucinda, and yet the film’s alternative history is highly satisfying to the viewer. Each is worth savoring.