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Hilary and Jackie

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Hilary and Jackie

Starring: Emily Watson, Rachel Griffiths
Director: Anand Tucker
Rated: R
RunTime: 120 Minutes
Release Date: January 1999
Genres: Drama, Music

*Also starring: James Frain, David Morrisey, Charles Dance, Celia Imrie, Rupert Penry-Jones, Bill Paterson, Nyree Dawn Porter, Vernon Dobtcheff

Review by Mark OHara
No Rating Supplied

'Hilary and Jackie' is a film very full of ideas, a film whose every shot is fascinating to watch. There are enough ideas to fill a discussion twice as long as the 121- minute running time. And best of all, it's a film that takes risks and turns out mostly successful.

One of the many genres 'Hilary and Jackie' fits is biography; specifically, it's the biography of the noted English cellist Jacqueline du Pre (Emily Watson), a story that also traces the life of Jackie's sister Hilary (Rachel Griffiths). It begins with the sisters on a girlhood lark at the beach, chasing each other across dunes in a make-believe world that surfaces later in the film. We learn soon that it is Hilary du Pre who is the child prodigy, a flautist who performs in Leopold Mozart's 'Toy Symphony' over the BBC. Rather pushy Mother (Celia Imrie) browbeats the younger Jackie into practicing more: "If you want to stay together, you have to be as good as each other." In a smooth telescoping of time, we observe 'Jacks' working on her fingering during breakfast, during lessons at school - until at a competition she wins best strings soloist to match Hilary's best woodwinds soloist, an achievement that ignites a first spark of jealousy in Hilary. Keely Flanders and Auriol Evans do stupendous work as the young Hilary and Jackie. Both are very expressive and natural before the camera. Only one area of Evans' performance called my attention, and that was her vibrato. Apparently most of the cast were occupied constantly with music lessons, but when Evans and, later, Watson, work with the cello, there are hints of phoniness. It's an easy element to overlook, however, as you have to love a film gutsy enough to show actors' hands while they play!

Before long, we see Griffiths and Watson in the title roles. Ironically, Jackie is far ahead of her sister in musical prowess, and as Hilary stays at home to begin a romance with Kiffer Finzi (David Morrissey), Jackie embarks on a tour of Europe. The conflict created by this situation is one of the more conventional aspects of the film. The more 'domestic' one loves her husband and adorable children, while the more artistic - and unstable - one marries another artist and continues to hop from city to city. It's not a weakness, though, as the story takes an almost mythical spin when Jackie, exhausted by years of her whirlwind lifestyle, visits her sister and her family in the English countryside. When Jackie makes an unthinkable request of her sister and brother-in-law, we glimpse the first signs of an illness that invades Jackie's personal life and threatens her very ability to play the cello.

At one point the film ceases being a typical biopic and takes a chance with an unusual narrative device, the word 'Hilary' appearing on a black screen. In the following segment we witness events from Hilary's point of view, tracing her failure at a flute exam, her relationship with Kiffer, and her oddly close attachment to her sister. Later 'Jackie' appears on the screen. To locate us, the director, Anand Tucker, briefly repeats a few scenes, but now focuses on Jackie's worldview, a narrow one damaged by a lonesome concert schedule in world capitals. (What surprised me is that no one traveled with one so young; Jackie in the film languishes at her own receptions, places her cello outside in the rain, she is so wearied of playing it.) But the two-edged storytelling compliments the twin imagery used in other places. It's really what causes the narrative to resonate, to build a momentum that not only sustains our interest but engages our sympathy. Jackie's depression is lessened somewhat by her marriage to Argentinian-born pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim (James Frain). But her condition seems bearable only when she is with Hilary.

There are moments that seem derivative of 'Shine,' especially when the motion slows and Jackie fails to negotiate her bowings, the sound going screechy and dissonant. But the comparisons stop here. Jacqueline du Pre's malady is certainly very different from David Helfgott's. What's gripping is people's reactions to each performer. I would give 'Hilary and Jackie' the edge in overall quality, though it seems that it will not attain the level of hype that surrounded 'Shine' two years ago.

David Johnson's photography adds much to the dramatic tension. We see everything from a classy circling of the young Jackie, frantically dancing with her body in an early show of her flamboyant style, to the thick, watery world perceived by Jackie in the later stages of her disease. Interiors are also portrayed particularly well, many shots showing the wide foyers of music academies.

Emily Watson is a delight to watch. Like Jacqueline du Pre herself, Watson seems to have a maturity beyond her years - she's a precocious actress. Because of the facility with which she depicts complex emotional and psychological extremes, her performance deserves recognition; it should pull down many nominations. As her sister, Rachel Griffiths also creates a sympathetic role, her face at once natural and intense. When we witness her cradling Jackie, we are moved equally by deep love and the story's inertia - moving inexorably to a realistic conclusion.

Frank Cottrell Boyce has written a screenplay that is smart and fast-moving. He and Tucker apparently informed the du Pres (Hilary and brother Piers penned a book about their sister) that they wished to dramatize Jackie's story in an uncharacteristically expressive manner. They have succeeded. Of course we have to remember the license used by the storytellers here, especially when the plot comes full circle and takes a decidedly expressionistic direction. Bravo for the takers of risks!

I recommend 'Hilary and Jackie' to any music lover, but also to lovers of untraditional plotting, and moviegoers who derive pleasure from heady conversation over ice cream when the movie's done. It's a bold step by filmmaker Anand Tucker, and a tribute to Jackie du Pre, a good soul who loved music.

Copyright 1998 Mark OHara

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