Gillian Armstrong loved Peter Carey's novel Oscar and Lucinda from the moment she read it, in 1987. She wasn't sure about God. But she knew about fate. She had only taken the interest in theatre which would lead her to become Australia's first woman film director for 50 years because she had gone to a school with a teacher who loved drama more than anything. She has been nudged ever since by signs that her destiny is sealed. "Peter's story is about fate, and faith, and chance," she says. "That attracted me to it."
Armstrong made her name with her debut, My Brilliant Career (1979), with Judy Davis as a rebellious female writer, struggling with the shackles of 19th century society. But everything she has done since has risked that film's collateral. She turned down Hollywood to make an Australian punk musical, Starstruck (1982). Then, accepting an offer to work with her admirer, Diane Keaton, she fought with the studios making Mrs Soffel (1984).
She returned to Australia for two further, fine films, High Tide (1987) and The Last Days of Chez Nous (1992). Sympathetic producers drew her back to Hollywood to make Little Women, a sizeable hit. For an instant, she was offered everything. She turned her back on it all to make Oscar and Lucinda, a film she'd dreamed of for years, with the tiniest of budgets. "Every film I do is a gamble," she says. "I accepted that a long time ago. In the end, you have to trust your gut, and do the things that you love."
Her first stroke of luck this time was with Oscar. She wanted Ralph Fiennes, fresh from The English Patient. Fiennes wanted Oscar. He plays the role to the letter of the book, twitches like a puppet with its strings cut. But it was Oscar's soul that drew him in. "I needed someone who could be innocent, without being stupid," Armstrong recalls, "and someone with a sense of goodness. It was a rare mixture. Ralph told me he was Oscar, and when I met him, I thought that too, in his shyness and his vulnerability. This is closer to Ralph than anything he's played before. He's been stronger, colder in the past. It was the character's moral dilemmas he felt close to. That this was a man who had high ethical standards, but had painful decisions to make to live up to them."
Armstrong has also had luck with her actresses, and the talent to draw out their best. From Judy Davis to Kerry Fox, she has specialised in unafraid performers, actresses who can make you fearful with their crudeness, their loose energy. Cate Blanchett joins their number as Lucinda. She sets her society on edge, so naked are her desires. Blanchett has become a star on the strength of it. But in casting her, Armstrong gambled.
"I trusted what I saw," she says, "but there was a risk in the studio's mind. It was her first lead role in a film, and she was up against an actor twice Academy-nominated. But they matched each other beat for beat. She has a gift for interpreting obsession and addiction, the ability to feel that she's a bearer of secrets."
It is tempting to see patterns in Armstrong's female leads, a series of women out of shape with their times, too passionate, too ornery. It's the last thing she wants to hear. "That wasn't the key thing to Lucinda," she groans. "Everybody thinks that since my first film was My Brilliant Career, I am that girl, out there chafing against society, and I hate it. That's not me, that was the character, that was Judy Davis. I didn't have to rebel. My life's been handed to me on a plate."
So what does link her characters? An excess of passion ?
"I'm interested in people's flaws," she says. "I'm interested in why people do the things they do, that are not conventional, and not expected. None of us ever do the things we know we should, for a million reasons. Sometimes it's to do with sexual obsession. Sometimes with taking a chance. Sometimes it's to do with fate."
Does she see those flaws in herself? "You always see something of yourself in characters," she says, "in a minor way. It may be they're living out something I wouldn't be brave enough to do."
So is it the flaws that make her characters, above everything else?
"I think it's my compassion for the flaw," she says. "I adore the fact that we're not robots. That we're so odd. That's what interests me. Those are the stories I want to tell."