Hilary and Jackie
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : Emily Watson (Jacqueline du Pré), Rachel Griffiths (Hilary du Pré), David Morrissey (Kiffer Finzi), James Frain (Daniel Barenboim), Charles Dance (Derek du Pré), Celia Imrie (Iris du Pré), Rupert Penry Jones (Piers du Pré), Keely Flanders (Young Hilary), Auriol Evans (Young Jackie)
"Hilary and Jackie" is based on the true story of two sisters who shared the gift of music, but chose different paths in life. The story takes place over several decades, spanning from the early 1950s into the late 1980s, and while it should be epic in scope, first-time feature director Anand Tucker keeps the film close and personal. This is first and foremost a human story.
Hilary du Pré (Rachel Griffiths) was a gifted flutist who won numerous awards as a young girl in England, while her sister, Jackie (Emily Watson), played the cello and stayed mostly in her shadow. However, it wasn't long before Jackie began to shine musically, and by the time she was a teenager, her extraordinary talent and uniquely emotional rendering of the great cello concertos made her one of the most gifted cellists in all of England. Meanwhile, Hilary began to recede in musical talent and expressed more interest in getting married and living an "ordinary" life.
The film creates an interesting dichotomy between the "ordinary" and the "extraordinary" life, and suggests that neither is inherently better than the other, but each is desired by those who are not living it. While Hilary settles down with a likable, energetic man named Kiffer (David Morrissey) into an ordinary life in the English countryside, Jackie embraces her celebrity as a renowned concert cellist, striking out on world-wide tours that take her to Germany, France, and even so far as the Soviet Union. She eventually marries the famous pianist Daniel Barenboim (James Frain), but her life is still wild and untamed, sometimes bordering on the insane.
The screenplay, written by Frank Cottrell Boyce ("Welcome to Sarajevo") from a memoir by Hilary and her brother, Piers du Pré, creates an interesting structure to highlight the dichotomy between the two sisters' lives. The first half-hour follows them together from young childhood into young adulthood. The film then splits in half, appropriately at the time when Jackie is first heralded as a great prodigy. The narrative proceeds from Hilary's point-of-view, then goes back and retells much of the same story from Jackie's point-of-view. Questions that are raised in the first half of the film are answered by the second half, and things that seem one way from Hilary's standpoint, turn out to be quite different when the audience sees them through Jackie's eyes.
"Hilary and Jackie" is a beautifully filmed movie, with gorgeous cinematography by David Johnson. Accompanying the visuals is a stunning soundtrack, which features a resplendent orchestral score by Barrington Pheloung, and several concert sequences with famous music by Bach, Handel, Brahms, and Dvorák. The film is made more intimate by the fact that three of these scenes feature actual live recordings of Jackie du Pré in concert.
However, the film is somewhat saddled by the fact that it has to end on a deathbed. When she was 28, Jackie was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, a nerve disease that helped explain much of her seemingly irrational behavior as an adult. When at first she seems to be a tortured genius, whose talent literally drives her to the insanity, it turns out that she was simply suffering from a terrible disease, one that eventually took her life in 1987. Tucker's sometimes flamboyant direction and Boyce's divided screenplay work overtime to keep the film from feeling like a simplistic TV Disease-of-the-Week movie, and for the most part they are successful.
However, much of the film's success can be attributed to the fine performances by the two central actresses, Emily Watson ("Breaking the Waves") and Rachel Griffiths ("Muriel's Wedding"). They bring the characters of Jackie and Hilary to life with strong, nuanced performances. Watson's is the more showy of the two roles (with this film and "Breaking the Waves," she's cornering the market on playing tortured souls), but Griffiths is the one who truly holds the film together. It is her small, quiet moments as Hilary, such as when Jackie, in a wave of sadness and irrationality, makes a particularly disturbing request, that Griffiths shines with tenderness and complexity.
"Hilary and Jackie" will ring true to anyone who plays music, and it is also a worthwhile film for anyone who has a brother or sister, and has felt the range of emotions that accompany a sibling relationship--jealousy, envy, anger, but most of all, uncompromising love. "Hilary and Jackie" is, in the end, a love story. Not a conventional love story, but one that feels true because it is told from the heart and doesn't spare the audience the pain that often accompanies love.
©1998 James Kendrick