On the way out of a critics' screening of "Hilary & Jackie,"
a fellow reviewer remarked to me, "That sure was well done,
but it was a downer....I would hardly call it a date movie."
"No," I replied, "But it's a chick flick." Well, now, to call
October Films' "Hilary & Jackie" a chick flick may be valid,
but it would rank with the most reductive declarations anyone
could possibly make. It's a complex study of one of the
century's most famous and accomplished cellists, one that
necessarily leaves out much detail but adds some discreet
fictionalizations for dramatic effect. The downer to which my
colleague referred, musician Jacqueline Du Pre's death after
a heroic sixteen years' long struggle with multiple sclerosis,
adds quite a tragic dimension. Shunning the deadly format
that a biopic could take, Frank Cottrell Boyce's screenplay
directed with a high regard for emotional truth by Anand
Tucker focuses on the complicated relationship between Ms.
Du Pre and her sister, Hilary, from the time that Hilary and
Jackie were five years old and living in England's Sussex
Anyone who has grown up an only child can only imagine
the many difficulties and rewards of having brothers and
sisters. During their early years, the Du Pre girls ran through
the expected gamut of emotions, each envious in the turn of
the other, each desiring something of the attention that the
other is receiving at any given moment. But the core feeling
is one of joy, shown in the very opening scene as the two
little girls run and giggle across a beach, pretending that it is
the Kalahari Desert, the entire movie framed by a
communication which Jackie receives from a mysterious
stranger facing the breaking waves. Director Tucker shows
the Du Pre world as one which was in many ways
conventional, living in a large house and enjoying domestic
comforts. But the two girls are obviously influenced heavily
by their mother, who composes music for them; Hilary playing
it on her flute while her sister joins her in duets on her cello.
The competition between the sibs is predictable, as first
Hilary, then Jackie, is lauded for their accomplishments at
such a young age.
The story proceeds chronologically, as Jackie comes from
behind to exceed her sister's abilities and to give a major
concert recital at the age of sixteen. At one point, Tucker
divides the movie into two segments, one called "Hilary," the
other "Jackie" in a well-conceived attempt to show the effects
of each musician's separate experiences on their relationship.
While the typical educated viewer might assume that Jackie
got the better deal--aware that Jacqueline Du Pre went on to
world-wide fame with her instrument while her sister faded
into a conventional nature--life has a way of confounding
expectations. While Hilary drops plans to become a
professional flutist, Jackie embarks on a whirlwind tour of
European capitals such as Vienna, Moscow, Berlin and
Madrid. Unhappily, she has become alienated and depressed
by being compelled to travel far from home and desires so
much to become an ordinary person like Hilary that at one
point she makes an unconscionable demand on her sister--
which in a review should not be given away.
"Hilary and Jackie" is freighted with darling touches such as
the older Mrs. Du Pre's reaction upon hearing that Jackie is
love with concert leader and pianist Daniel Barenboim.
Thinking with a sigh of relief that the name is German, she
looks positively dejected when informed that the great man is
Jewish: "Oh, dear," she responds, though she and her
husband happily make the trip to Jerusalem to attend their
daughter's wedding. Jackie has converted to Judaism to the
disbelief of her father: "She CAN'T be Jewish...her hair is
Emily Watson as Jacqueline Du Pre and Rachel Griffiths as
her sister Hilary are wonderful together, with Ms. Griffiths
providing the necessary support to give Emily Watson a go
for an Academy Award as best actress. Ms. Watson, who
first dazzled American audiences with her role in the Danish
movie, "Breaking the Waves," is out to break the hearts of
the audience, first by her deep unhappiness with her travels
and her need to maintain her status as a world-class
musician; then far more by the dreaded neurological disorder
that sees her initially unable to manipulate her hands and
ultimately, bedridden, shaking uncontrollably and unable to
express a single thought. James Frain's role as Daniel
Barenboim is not likely to do much for his reputation, as Mr.
Boyce's screenplay portrays him fathering a child in Paris
while his wife is home in England, wheelchair-bound and
suffering from intense loneliness.
Since Ms. Watson is known to be an accomplished cellist,
she has no problem pretending that it is she, and not the
actual recordings of Ms. Du Pre, who is filling the screen with
glorious albeit an insufficient amount of music. As a biopic,
"Hilary and Jackie" may be conventional by the standards of
a Ken Russell, but Anand Tucker's choices work splendidly
to flesh out an unusual relationship between one of the
century's great musicians and the less talented sister whose
life she so envied.
Copyright © 1998 Harvey Karten