Wednesday December 30, 1998
"Hilary and Jackie" is based on "A Genius in the Family," a book by Hilary and Piers du Pre about their celebrated sister, Jacqueline du Pre, the brilliant young English cellist who died in 1987 at age 42 after being stricken by multiple sclerosis 16 years earlier at the height of her career.
One of the great musicians of her generation, celebrated for her interpretation of the Elgar cello concerto and half of a golden couple with conductor and pianist-husband Daniel Barenboim (who once described her as having "the gift of making you feel she was actually composing the music she was playing"), Du Pre is next door to deified in Britain.
So her siblings' book and its revelations about what life with Jackie could be like caused a tremendous ruckus, with one critic huffily proclaiming he could do without Du Pre being turned into "Du Praved, the sexual predator."
The resulting film promises to create equal discord, and in fact ends its credits with the most detailed disclaimer in memory, admitting in part that "composite characters, representative incidents, adjusted chronology and context, constructed dialogue and other fictionalized elements have been used for dramatic purposes. . . . No implication should be drawn that any of the persons depicted have authorized or approved this production."
While this fuss is intriguing it's largely beside the point. In fact, viewers in this country, where Du Pre is hardly a household word, are likely in a better position to appreciate what should be viewed as something inspired by reality instead of the exact real thing. Screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce ("Welcome to Sarajevo") and first-time feature director Anand Tucker have created an absorbing human story and told it with an unexpected structure and a determination to be evenhanded to all its conflicting parties.
Tucker, whose BBC background is in documentaries, shows off his strong storytelling sense and visual assurance with an opening dream sequence whose meaning doesn't become completely clear until later in the film. In a sequence that is both fun and somehow sad, he introduces two little girls playing by the shore, bright girls with vivid imaginations and sisters for sure.
These would be young Hilary (Keely Flanders) and younger Jackie (Auriole Evans). Their mother, Iris (Celia Imrie), is determined to give them a strong musical education, under which they both thrive. It is Hilary, two years older, who excels first on the flute, with Jackie's flowering as a prodigy on the cello shown to be inspired by their mother's edict, "If you want to be together, you have to play as well as Hilary."
This pair of child actresses do a remarkable job of underlining the poignancy of young girls working ever so hard on their adult music. Once Hilary and Jackie grow up, the parts are taken even further by two of the best actresses working today, Rachel Griffiths and Emily Watson.
The Australian Griffiths, best known for her role in "Muriel's Wedding," brings a keen mixture of melancholy and resilience to the part of Hilary, who feels the separation Jackie's sudden success brings with it and whose own life as a musician becomes reduced to answering the question, "And how is your marvelous sister?"
As Jackie du Pre, British actress Watson more than fulfills the promise of her celebrated Oscar-nominated work in "Breaking the Waves." She completely inhabits the role of the troubled young cellist, living it as much as acting it. As Jackie appears to gradually turn into a kind of beautiful monster, selfish and needy in a way that feels directly proportional to her amazing gift, Watson knows how to create involvement without special pleading on her part.
Once Hilary and Jackie become adults, the narrative splits in two. In a device reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa's celebrated "Rashomon," the story of their troubled but deep interaction is told first from Hilary's point of view and then, about 45 minutes later (and announced by a large "Jackie" on the screen) from her sister's.
It's a mark of how evenhanded "Hilary and Jackie" manages to be that this technique works as well as it does, forcing us to recognize the honest subjectivity and selective memory that makes up each woman's view of reality. As a general rule, Hilary tends to feel abandoned by her soul mate, while Jackie finds herself lonely and even desperate, trapped by her talent in a bizarre life. Even as simple an act as Jackie's sending her dirty laundry home to England during her first European tour is depicted from a pair of radically different perspectives.
Though loving, the two sisters are always competitive, even where men are concerned. Hilary gets involved first, marrying Christopher "Kiffer" Finzi (David Morrissey), the son of composer Gerald Finzi, whose brash persona is a breath of fresh air for her after her cloistered life at home. Not one to be overshadowed, Jackie snags the celebrated young musician Barenboim (James Frain). As Jackie gets more insecure and voracious, the personal lives of the sisters get even more intimately intertwined--an agony that worsens when Hilary's MS is diagnosed.
There is, inevitably, something of "Shine" about this story of music and emotional torment, but "Hilary and Jackie" feels completely its own picture. The powerful yet delicate ties of sisterhood it illuminates are so intricate and mysterious, and so superbly acted, that this exploration is difficult to resist.
Hilary and Jackie, 1998. R, for language and sexuality. Released by October Films. Director Anand Tucker. Producers Andy Paterson, Nicholas Kent. Executive producers Guy East, Nigel Sinclair, Ruth Jackson. Screenplay Frank Cottrell Boyce, based on the book "A Genius in the Family" by Hilary and Piers du Pre. Cinematographer David Johnson. Editor Martin Walsh. Costumes Sandy Powell. Production design Alice Normington. Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute. Emily Watson as Jacqueline du Pre. Rachel Griffiths as Hilary du Pre. David Morrissey as Kiffer Finzi. James Frain as Daniel Barenboim. Charles Dance as Derek du Pre. Celia Imrie as Iris du Pre. Rupert Penry Jones as Piers du Pre.