This luminous literary adaptation stays just the right side of precious and pretentious in tracing the love between two unlikely gamblers, one a proto-feminist heiress who seems determined to squander both fortune and reputation, the other a sheltered Anglican minister who sees proof of God's handiwork in the constellation of his poker cards. Although it starts out like a cross between a Jane Austen comedy and a Thomas Hardy parable, Oscar and Lucinda eventually veers closer to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness as its protagonists' flirtation with chance escalates into a wager as fraught with symbolism as it is with danger; religious philosophy is part of this film's very fiber, adding richness and depth to a gloriously unlikely plot. Ralph Fiennes is all red hair, sharp angles, and social ineptness as Oscar Hopkins, the motherless youth who rejects his father's Christian asceticism in favor of predestination and life in the casinos. As the convention-despising Lucinda, Cate Blanchett, in an early feature role, displays both the steely determination and the physical subtlety that would make her a star with Elizabeth the following year. It's really director Gillian Armstrong's show, though, and she navigates the novel's complexities with economy and visual flair, aided in no small part by Laura Jones' well-structured screenplay and cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson's ravishing images of landscapes both lush and bleak. A film this singular is bound to annoy lovers of convention, but those willing to follow Armstrong and her collaborators out on a limb will find their trust amply rewarded.
by Brian J. Dillard review