Shine (1997)

January 20, 1997

Of all the genres of film, the one most likely to teeter between whole grade schmaltz and visual poetry is that cinematic standard, the biopic. Where else could a director or scriptwriter plunge into the sweaty depths of melodrama and malodorous cheese so thoroughly than a project (ahem), “Based on A True Story”? Still, there’s always silver in any cloudy movie screen, and one of these, Aussie director Scott Hicks’ Shine, emanates more of the precious metal than most Hollywood studios produce in a month.

The film is based loosely on the life of David Helfgott, whose musical gifts were nearly destroyed by his father’s (Armin Mueller-Stahl) domineering control. His only friend during his teenage years is an elderly writer named Katherine Susannah Prichard (Googie Withers), who becomes the desperately needed ballast in David’s chaotic life. It’s after her insistence that David finally defies his father and leaves Australian to study piano in London. Painfully shy and ackward due to his sheltered childhood, David slowly learns to unleash his emotions through music, with the aid of his instructor, Cecil Parkes, played by the incredible John Gielgud.

While rehearsing for an upcoming competition, David learns of Katherine’s death. It’s this, coupled with his choice of music, Rachmaninoff’s insurmountable ‘Piano Concerto No. 3’, that leads to David’s mental breakdown. He performs the most difficult piece beautifully, but after its conclusion collapses and is institutionalized for many years, and prohibited from playing piano by the hospital’s staff.

When he is finally released, David is a changed man - his speech patterns are rapid fire and follow a warped stream of consciousness, and he’s become frenetically eccentric. Through this, though, his childlike manner proves to be incredibly charming, and a chance meeting with a kindly bar owner named Sylvia leads to David’s return to the piano as the pub’s entertainer. His marriage to a Sydney astrologer named Gillian (Lynn Redgrave) and return to public performances proves to be the sweetest triumph a movie has depicted in years.

Throughout the film, director Scott Hicks and writer Jan Sardi display a nimble sense of dramatic timing, which manifests itself in the handling of the many high and low points in David’s fascinating story. In most any other film, the emotionalism of many key scenes could have turned hackneyed and overbearing; here, it’s handled with a sensitive touch that keeps the film from sinking with the weight of theatrics. Hicks knows that it’s the lit fuse, and not the explosion that creates tension, and thus keeps the cheese firmly in the fridge, where it belongs.

One misstep looms large over the film, however, which threatens to unbalance the care Hicks has invested. His handling of Helfgott’s breakdown seems heavy-handed and clumsy. It’s almost as if he doesn’t trust the audience enough to emphasize with Helfgott’s plight, and so punctuates the climactic scene with too heavy an exclamation point. Here, the film veers precariously close to the realm of overstatement. Luckily, the second act manages to smooth out the repercussions from this brief loss of control.

It helps that Hicks has top-notch assistance from his cast. Heartstopping performances abound, from the three Davids (Alex Rafalowicz as a child, Noah Taylor [The Year my Voice Broke, Flirting] as a youth, and stage actor Geoffrey Rush as an adult), the venerable John Gielgud, and Armin Mueller-Stahl (The Magic Box, Night on Earth). Shine has been bestowed with awards and accolades since its release, and rightfully so. It’s like beautiful music on a quiet evening at home: lilting, moving, and ultimately satisfying.

ISSN 1499-7894
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