Oscar and Lucinda, from 1997, is the romantic tale of a couple of misfits in 19th century Australia.
Oscar is an English lad, raised in a sort of stern Christian cult (the Plymouth Brethren). He breaks with his family to become a more mainstream Anglican missionary. He is sent to Australia.
Lucinda is an Australian girl, greatly ill at ease with the sexist constraints put on women. Her parents die when she is a young woman, and while she is aghast that the law allows the family farm that was left to her to be liquidated by her guardians supposedly in her best interests, she is happy to get the money because it enables her to buy a glassworks and pursue a lifelong interest she has had in glassmaking.
Both Oscar and Lucinda, by the way, are compulsive gamblers. In Oscar’s case—utterly implausibly, but not at all unusual in Movie Land—he is phenomenally good at it and invariably wins, in spite of the fact that he is way too ambivalent and guilty about it for religious reasons to devote himself to it like a full time job and give his all to perfecting his abilities, which is the only way in real life that someone could win even remotely close to as consistently as he does. He lives quite frugally and gives away his winnings to the poor and other good causes, which is the only way he can rationalize his continued gambling.
Lucinda, on the other hand, seems indifferent to whether she wins or loses and just craves the action, in part precisely because it’s not a “ladylike” activity. In fact as I recall at one point she even says she’d prefer to lose, as apparently she doesn’t feel comfortable with having inherited so much money.
Oscar and Lucinda meet, discover there is a chemistry between them, and tentatively move toward either a romantic connection or at least a friendship. One of the reasons there’s some ambiguity there is that Lucinda has some kind of connection that Oscar is unclear about with another missionary who has been sent out to the boondocks somewhere where there is not yet even a physical church.
Oscar, who has joined Lucinda’s glassworks as a kind of apprentice, gets the idea that the way to win her heart would be not to conflict with this other missionary that he sees as a possible rival for her affections, but to reach out to him in a positive way. He proposes that the glassworks create a little church entirely made of glass, and he volunteers to transport it on the treacherous journey to the other missionary and present it to him as a gift from he and Lucinda.
I experienced the bulk of Oscar and Lucinda as a moderately dull, slow-moving period drama. I felt a bit more engaged toward the end, with Oscar’s trip through hostile Aborigine territory with the glass church, but even then it didn’t draw me in more than a little.
I’m not entirely sure why that is, but in thinking about it something did occur to me.
In movies—and novels, or I suppose any fiction or nonfiction storytelling—obviously you’re only going to be presented with a very, very limited amount of information about the characters. It would have to be the most bizarre Warholian project for that not to be the case. The filmmaker, or whoever, chooses to tell you certain things for certain purposes, and must of necessity leave everything else out for you to infer or just not know.
So if it’s a movie about an astronaut, say, it might contain a scene from childhood showing the first time he got really excited about space, maybe a scene or two about the difficulties in his education or training that he had to overcome, one or more scenes showing how his obsession with being an astronaut put a strain on his relationships with his wife and kids, a scene where some kind of domestic explosion shocked him into an awareness of how his priorities have caused him to hurt people he loves, etc., etc., because those are the points the filmmaker wanted to make through this character.
OK, like I say, every movie does that; there’s nothing wrong per se about editing a movie such that each scene tells what you want it to tell about the characters.
But somehow in Oscar and Lucinda—and I may be completely off base here; I may be the only viewer who experienced it this way—that process is too obvious and simplistic. As I watched it, it was like, “OK, here’s the scene that establishes that he had a severe upbringing. Here’s the scene that explains how he overcame his initial reluctance to become obsessed with gambling. Here’s the scene that shows that meeting this liberated, sassy Australian chick helped bring him out of his shell.” The characters never felt like real people to me; the filmmaking was too transparent. It was like watching a stage magician and being able to see the wires.
I suppose it’s a decent movie. I didn’t hate it certainly. If you’re into fancy olden days costumes and such—which I’m not—you’d probably like it. But Oscar and Lucinda just never did much for me.