There's no escaping that Gillian Armstrong's Oscar and Lucinda is disarmingly pretty. Her adaptation of Peter Carey's novel, set in 19th-century England and Australia, devotes sumptuous detail to everything in it, from Victorian knickknacks to dappled light in eucalyptus groves. But the movie's prettiness amounts to a prison. It excludes any sort of wild beauty, which this tale of personal liberation and religious quest cries out for, from breaking to the film's surface. The focus on rendering the Victorian period with exactitude, moreover, hinders the film's vision from becoming personal. Thirty minutes into Oscar and Lucinda, one wonders why, with all the research, time, and money evidently spent on making every shot a historically correct fabric, a little more effort wasn't spent on choosing color schemes to stitch them together, more attention wasn't given to making the story seamless, and a score that would add substantially to the drama wasn't commissioned. In Armstrong's last American film, Little Women, prettiness was a success because it underscored the story's emphasis on modesty. But here, prettiness, yoked to stirring melodramatic material, is simply overburdened with more than it can deliver.

At an early age, Oscar Hopkins and Lucinda Leplastrier are given both destinies and obstacles. Oscar comes from a ramrod-straight Christian community that resides on a desolate English coast. Though wishing to please his minister father, young Oscar seeks a very personal relationship with God, and his relentless brooding leads him to break from his father's church. Oscar as a young man (Ralph Fiennes) studies theology at Oxford, but his fellow seminarians chuckle at his sincerity. Lucinda in Australia receives the most pleasurable of upbringings, backed by a parent's wealth, but raised in a cozy, lazy cottage by doting surrogate parents. When Lucinda, grown-up (Cate Blanchett), receives her mother's inheritance, her dreamy pastoral existence comes to an end. Ironically, advancing in class standing gives her a harder life. High society disapproves of her displays of independence, and shuts her out of its circles. Lucinda takes refuge in buying a factory that produces glass, which she loved as a child; but, the fact that she is a woman with a stake in business seals her expulsion.

Both Oscar and Lucinda take risks in life, and wind up as outcasts-so it's not too surprising that they should each gravitate toward the borderline world of gambling. On a steamship bound for Australia, while Oscar is fleeing a humiliating scandal, and Lucinda is returning from a family visit to England, they happen to meet. She is looking for a minister to hear her confession-but he craves to pour his heart out to anyone who will sympathize with his betting addiction. Thus, a spiritual friendship is born, which will eventually propel them to embark on a fantastic partnership. Putting together her finances and affection for glass work with his religious zeal, they decide to build a beautiful glass church in the heart of aborigine-occupied Australia. Heedless Europeans that they are, they don't count on their show of love infringing on the life of an entire civilization.

These two intrepid, blind souls should be at the heart of the film; instead, Armstrong typically distracts us from their presence, by fixing attention on production designer Luciana Arrighi's selection and arrangement of doodads. The fixtures, clothing and fine lighting only sap Oscar and Lucinda of energy. Director of photography Geoffrey Simpson sketches out sets of rudimentary color patterns for England and Australia, but accomplishes little more creative than that. Thomas Newman's score contributes not a single emotion that we don't pick up from watching the screen. And Armstrong's storytelling is wobbly. Some events (Lucinda's trip to England) and introductions of characters (Miriam Chadwick, Oscar's eventual seducer) happen arbitrarily and are not neatly integrated into the plot. Lucinda's early passion for glass is underdeveloped. Oscar's interest during college in not only track betting, but gambling at social functions, seems unlikely for such an introverted person-and is never seen-yet must be assumed by the audience when he first meets Lucinda. Armstrong falls into clichs, as well: her conception of a red-hot Chinese gambling den is a stereotype, and the most salient reason for the film's brief sex and violence scenes is to lend obligatory spice.

What's more, Fiennes doesn't get a chance to show more than the most obvious aspects of a God boy in torment. After watching his complex, understated performances in The English Patient and Schindler's List, more depth is expected of him. But Armstrong's visual gauze prevents all from shining. Disappointingly, instead of making a jubilant return to her native Australia, Armstrong has conquered the Outback with a Hollywood production.

--Peter Henné