February 14, 1997 in Seven

Shining Through The Story Of A Piano Prodigy’s Slide Into Mental Illness, ‘Shine’ Is A Small-Film Triumph

By The Spokesman-Review
 

The idea of artist-as-madman is no mere plot device for a grade-B movie. The same blend of brain chemistry that results in genius all too often forces the very-talented into debilitating dementia.

David Helfgott is a perfect example.

Scott Hicks’ film “Shine” tells the true-life story of Helfgott, an Australian musician whose early promise as a pianist once warranted headlines. Hicks, pursuing the script that he co-wrote with Jan Sardi, follows Helfgott’s initial rise to glory, his subsequent fall and his ultimate recovery.

Played by three actors - Alex Rafalowicz as a boy, Noah Taylor as a young man, Geoffrey Rush as an adult - Helfgott is the focus of a movie that is both a family drama and a personal tragedy.

What gets lost in the mix, unfortunately, is the man himself.

We first see him as a grown-up mass of neuroses, a stuttering variation on Dustin Hoffman’s autistic “Rain Man” character (though Helfgott is more connected to the world around him). He initially annoys, then delights, the staff and patrons of a restaurant with his penchant for playing difficult classical pieces.

Then Hicks and Sardi take us back to the beginning, when the youthful Helfgott is the eldest and most promising child living in a house ruled by a dominating Polish-emigre patriarch (Armin Mueller-Stahl). And we see why, despite his vulnerability, this prodigy can make the piano come alive.

It’s because Papa says he will.

The epitome of a man living through his son, Helfgott’s father alternately loves and abuses the boy, guiding him to superb musicianship but always on his own strict terms. Any attempt by the boy to assert his independence brings swift and harsh retribution.

It’s no wonder that when the boy does manage to leave, to accept a scholarship to study in London, his father disowns him. And yet the elder Helfgott’s curse manages to mark the boy forever: “No one will ever love you like I do,” he says.

Driven to prove himself by father substitutes (John Gielgud is one), Helfgott finally is confronted by a demon that his fragile ego can’t overcome: Rachmaninoff’s formidable Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor. A crisis is inevitable.

And this is where the film is weakest. For the next thing we know, Helfgott is back in Australia, living in a managed-care facility, alienated from his family and dependent on friends and fans. At this point Rush’s Helfgott becomes more of a good-natured symbol of emotional fragility than a living, breathing human being.

One of his fans introduces Helfgott to the woman (played by Lynn Redgrave) who will become his wife and, ultimately, who will lead him back into the spotlight.

All of this is portrayed respectfully and, for the most part, artistically. Director Hicks has a good sense of the visual, which allows him to capture the claustrophobic feel of the Helfgott home, the desperate stress caused by musical competitions and the child-like release of a mind that bends but refuses to break.

In terms of acting, Taylor - as the youthful Helfgott - builds on the powerful work that he has done in such films as “The Year My Voice Broke” and “Flirting.” If anything, he outshines (pardon the pun) the performances put in by Oscar nominees Rush and Mueller-Stahl, both of whom are actors you can’t help but watch.

Ultimately, the problem with “Shine” is that even though it examines the painful circumstances that can complicate - and even cause - emotional disabilities, it settles for easy answers. The years between Helfgott’s initial psychotic episode and his recovery are glossed over, as are the specifics of what convinces the future Mrs. Helfgott that the marriage will work (it’s got to be more than just because the stars say it will).

“Shine,” then, is a triumph - but only of sorts. A small, independently financed film from Australia, starring mostly obscure actors in major roles, it garnered enough attention from Hollywood to earn seven Oscar nominations - among them Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Rush), Best Supporting Actor (Mueller-Stahl) and Best Original Screenplay.

But greatness, like the kind that Helfgott himself once reached for, is beyond its grasp.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo

MEMO: Two sidebars appeared with the story: 1. “Shine” *** Location: The Lyons Ave. Cinemas, Magic Lantern and Post Falls Cinema 6 Credits: Directed by Scott Hicks, starring Geoffrey Rush, Noah Taylor, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Lynn Redgrave, Alex Rafalowicz and John Gielgud Running time: 1:45 Rating: PG-13

2. Other views Here’s what other critics say about “Shine:” Chris Hewitt/St. Paul Pioneer Press: That the movie manages to triumph over its flaws is a tribute to its exceptional craft and to a note-perfect cast. Paula Nechak/Seattle Post-Intelligencer: … much of the film is overwrought, melodramatic and sometimes painful to watch. Janet Maslin/New York Times: Hicks’s direction has an elegance and dignity that rescue “Shine” from the exploitative and give the film an acute, genuinely sensitive style. Matt Wolf/Associated Press: While this is hardly the “Rocky” of piano prodigy sagas, the film often sacrifices credibility and common sense to its desire for emotional catharsis.

Two sidebars appeared with the story: 1. “Shine” *** Location: The Lyons Ave. Cinemas, Magic Lantern and Post Falls Cinema 6 Credits: Directed by Scott Hicks, starring Geoffrey Rush, Noah Taylor, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Lynn Redgrave, Alex Rafalowicz and John Gielgud Running time: 1:45 Rating: PG-13

2. Other views Here’s what other critics say about “Shine:” Chris Hewitt/St. Paul Pioneer Press: That the movie manages to triumph over its flaws is a tribute to its exceptional craft and to a note-perfect cast. Paula Nechak/Seattle Post-Intelligencer: … much of the film is overwrought, melodramatic and sometimes painful to watch. Janet Maslin/New York Times: Hicks’s direction has an elegance and dignity that rescue “Shine” from the exploitative and give the film an acute, genuinely sensitive style. Matt Wolf/Associated Press: While this is hardly the “Rocky” of piano prodigy sagas, the film often sacrifices credibility and common sense to its desire for emotional catharsis.

Get stories like this in a free daily email


Please keep it civil. Don't post comments that are obscene, defamatory, threatening, off-topic, an infringement of copyright or an invasion of privacy. Read our forum standards and community guidelines.

You must be logged in to post comments. Please log in here or click the comment box below for options.

comments powered by Disqus