Oscar and Lucinda, Gillian Armstrong's new film of Peter Carey's picaresque novel, may be accounted an interesting failure--with most of the failure, truth be told, laid at the narrow feet of Ralph Fiennes, who, as a gambling-addicted na•f cleric, gives the kind of twitchy, bewildering performance for which the word "mannered" was coined--and most of the interest is provided by his co-star, the luminous Cate Blanchett.
As Lucinda, an independent-minded young heiress from the Australian outback, Blanchett recalls the kind of convention-skirting feisty ingenue played in previous generations by the likes of Carole Lombard, Audrey Hepburn, Katharine Ross, and Judy Davis. She's also the audience's only anchor through Oscar and Lucinda's unexpected, not to say preposterous twists of fate (God, glass, and gaming figure heavily), and our only clue to the inchoate sexual longing that oscillates strangely and faintly between the title characters. The daring and forward momentum of Blanchett's performance ends up our only guide through the dark of the film's more obscure meanderings.
In a recent interview, Blanchett cited Carey's novel as well as Laura Jones' screenplay adaptation as her guides to Lucinda's bumpy throughline.
"You're always having to keep one foot in the moment you're in and one foot in the arc of the story," said Blanchett of the process of characterization. "Peter writes in a very tangential way: You think you're in one part, then you get led off into what you think is a completely irrelevant tangent--and then he draws that back in later."
She appears well qualified to tackle such complications. Her theatre training in Sydney was "quite eclectic," she said, and besides, "Australians have a sort of mishmash of influences." And, while Blanchett is among a young crop of internationally hot talent out of Australia (a group which includes Russell Crowe, Toni Collette, Rachel Griffiths, and Frances O'Connor, among others), and in fact recently nabbed a lead as a Long Island housewife in Mike Newell's Pushing Tin opposite John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton, she claims to remain more interested in the challenges of good ensemble acting than in making career-move star turns.
"For me, that would be death, because you then somehow think it's about you," she said. "Often, particularly in film, the lead characters for women, the heroines, are the least exciting people to play. The characters which are smaller are far more clearly defined--their function is clearer."
Clarity is not only among the qualities Blanchett brings to her work; she actively seeks it. Her drama coach in Australia, Lindy Davies, "works very much with the actor's impulse; out of the chaos of a rehearsal period comes clarity," she said. And prime among her praise for Gillian Armstrong was the "work-centered focus" she creates on her sets: "There's no neuroses. I think a lot of directors can get tricked into thinking that that's how you elicit performances from actors--by creating confusion. It's not always a great place to start. Gill makes you feel very secure so that you can take risks as an actor."
On the other hand, the right approach for the right project: Blanchett recently wrapped the title role in Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth I, a "left-of-field take on a quite stolid part of English history," and she unhesitatingly described Kapur's set as "chaos, complete and utter chaos. I think that Shekhar likes to throw cast and crew into chaos, which probably worked for the film. What he's done is thrown the young Elizabeth into turmoil, so the content of the film was really reflected in the way it was shot."
And the way Blanchett works--grounded but searching, informed but open--is clearly reflected in her acting.