Friday November 22, 1996
It's a rainy night and a man is walking in the downpour, soaked through and talking much too fast. He's one of the legion of the mentally unstable--erratic, intriguing, even frightening--that city dwellers instinctively avoid, and when he stumbles into a piano bar in Perth, Australia, at the beginning of "Shine," everyone wishes he hadn't.
Lurching around with his nervous inability to focus, the intruder seems to know he's balanced on the cusp of madness. "Got to stop talking, got to stop, got to stop, it's a problem, isn't it, is it a problem?" he babbles super-fast, but he can't slow himself down. For his voice is his only companion, and all that high-speed chattering is compensation for terrible loss. "Tragedy," he mutters to himself as the bar's owner drives him home, "ridiculous tragedy."
The man's name is David Helfgott, and though no one suspects it, he least of all, that rainy night is a turning point in his life. Based on a true story and widely anticipated since its gangbusters premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, "Shine" goes backward to reveal the ferocious battles that made David a casualty and forward to show the unimagined experiences life still holds for him.
David's path in either direction is not usual or foreseeable in its specifics. In broad outline, however, it's more familiar. Focusing on the crossover between genius and madness, "Shine" is one of those exhilarating depictions of the power of love and the resilience of the human spirit that sounds doomed to overflow the borders of cliched emotionalism. Miraculously, it doesn't.
Perhaps the great disservice Hollywood has done modern moviegoers is refusing to trust them in matters of the heart. In the hands of the studios stories like this are so brazen in their manipulation they make us simultaneously angry and ashamed of our finer feelings. As told by Australian director Scott Hicks, screenwriter Jan Sardi, cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson, editor Pip Karmel and a gifted group of actors, "Shine" reverses the trend. It's a throwback to the best of old-fashioned Hollywood movies, able to move an audience without insulting it in the process.
There is a piano in the room of the adult Helfgott (prominent Australian stage actor Geoffrey Rush), and its presence triggers an extended series of flashbacks, starting in the early 1950s. It's then that a tiny pianist (7-year-old Alex Rafalowicz) so astonishes well-to-do Ben Rosen (Nicholas Bell), one of the judges at a local talent show, that he tracks the prodigy down and offers to help with future lessons.
What he gets is not gratitude but fear of all outsiders from the boy's mother and sisters and stony hostility from Peter Helfgott, whose almost first words about David, a somber "He is my son," turn out to have the most awful and pervasive significance.
For Peter Helfgott, magnificently played by Armin Mueller-Stahl, is a man turned by personal and world history into a rigid and willful tyrant with his son. Taught to be unbending by a father he despised for keeping him from music, he has focused the terrible weight of his frustrated ambitions on the frail boy. And as a refugee from the Holocaust who believes "in this world the weak get crushed like insects," he is unbending in his determination not to "let anyone destroy this family."
At those moments when "Shine" threatens to get gooey, the integrity of Mueller-Stahl's chilling performance invariably stops it cold. A terrifying, terrorizing bully who forces his son to repeat "I am a very lucky boy" again and again, this monster father is also--and this is critical--a painfully human beast who clandestinely hugs his son in the dark of night. Perhaps most frightening of all, when Peter says, "No one will love you like me," he believes it. With a father like this, no scenario is beyond possibility.
When we turn to David as a teenager (now played by "Flirting's" Noah Taylor), his advancement as a pianist is set off by a kind of regression on the emotional front. Awkward, vulnerable, feeling "I'm never really sure about anything," David is graceful and fully alive only in front of the keyboard.
And always there looms the figure of Peter Helfgott, possessively insisting, "I know, David, what is best because I am your father." The more David threatens to break free, the more the leash is tightened, and the twitches in the boy that prefigure what we've seen of the man become more and more apparent.
The combination of situations that finally converge to drive David over the edge and what happens to him after that rainy night benefit from the intuitive restraint of director Hicks, who has a background in documentaries, and his determination to keep the story's maudlin possibilities at arm's length.
"Shine" is also enlivened by its anachronistic willingness to proclaim the power of classical music. Piano competition is treated as "a blood sport" and the ability of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3, the film's centerpiece, to derange the unwary is insisted on. "The piano is a monster," says music professor Cecil Parkes (an effortlessly heroic John Gielgud). "Tame it or it will swallow you whole."
Playing the adult David Helfgott, keeping the balance between ensuring the character's humanity and seeing that his madness does not unravel into mere winsome eccentricity, is a difficult task and Geoffrey Rush, selected by Hicks for his experience with the large emotions of Shakespeare, handles the challenge superbly. The confidence and grasp David exhibits when he sits down at the piano spills over to the rest of the film, and in the process "Shine" is transformed into popular filmmaking at its smartest and most persuasive.
Shine, 1996. PG-13, for nudity/sensuality and intense thematic elements. Googie Withers; Katharine Susannah Prichard Geoffrey Rush as David as an adult. Noah Taylor as David as a young man. Alex Rafalowicz as David as a child. Armin Mueller-Stahl as Peter. Lynn Redgrave as Gillian. John Gielgud as Cecil Parkes.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times