Hilary and Jackie

          There's something about the story of a person tragically cut down
  by a fatal disease that makes screenwriters and directors salivate and
  often (though not always) the result is a crowd-pleaser. Whether it is
  strictly a romance (
DARK VICTORY, LOVE STORY), a family comedy-
  drama (
PRIDE OF THE YANKEES, BRIAN'S SONG), the more of a tear-jerker
  the better.

          The life of cellist Jacqueline du Pré, who suffered with multiple
  sclerosis, has already served as the basis for 1986's fictionalized
    DUET FOR ONE, which starred Julie Andrews as a violinist stricken with
  a crippling disorder. The film itself was sub par although Andrews rose
  above the material and made you care. Now, screenwriter Frank
  Cottrell Boyce and documentarian-turned-feature filmmaker Anand
  Tucker have adapted the memoir
  sister and brother into a fascinating, if somewhat problematic biopic

          In her native England, Jacqueline du Pré has all but been canonized
  by the music establishment and there has been an outcry over this film.
  Her former husband, the Argentine pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim,
  refused his cooperation as well as the rights to many of du Pré's recordings
  (although her signature piece, Elgar's "Concerto for Violincello and Orchestra
  in E Minor, op.85" is on the soundtrack) and he has taken the unusual step
  of commissioning a biography written by an author of his choosing. There
  has also been an outcry from people who "knew" du Pré, mostly over the
  way she is portrayed in the film. Since
  based on a published biography jointly written by her sister and brother,
  the brouhaha appears amusing to a distant observer. I won't even claim
  to know whether Tucker's version is "true" or not. Judging it on its merit
  as a film biography,
HILARY AND JACKIE ranks as a slightly above
  average entry in that category.

          Boyce and Tucker have not so much made a film as composed one,
  clearly playing on the idea of variations on a theme. We first meet the
  title characters as young girls playing at the shore and in swift strokes,
  their bond is clearly detailed. They can almost communicate telepathically,
  not unlike twins. Both girls are encouraged in their musical studies by
  their parents, particularly their mother (played by Celia Imrie). Brother
  Piers, although a co-author of the source material is relegated to no more
  than a brief walk-on in the film. His function as a youngster seemed
  to be to serve as an antenna for the television! The girls, however, are
  front and center. Hilary plays the flute and appears to be the one headed
  for glory and a life of performing. She applies herself wholeheartedly
  to practicing and studying her instrument. Jackie is more mercurial, and
  must struggle for attention in Hilary's shadow. As they age, though,
  Jackie pulls ahead in terms of ability and soon their roles are reversed.

          In keeping with the musical motif, the film is divided into section.
  The first focuses on the girls as children and culminates in a contest in
  which both won in their respective divisions. Skipping ahead in years,
  the focus is on Hilary as she struggles with her musical training and
  following along in her sister's wake. Hilary attracts a suitor,
  Christopher 'Kiffer' Finzi, whom she agrees to marry. The film then
  backtracks and, offering a variation on the theme, tells similar events
  from Jackie's point of view. We see her frustrations and her growing
  eccentricities. Given a priceless cello which du Pre comes to feel is an
  albatross, she often deliberately tries to ruin it by exposing it to
  extreme cold or leaving it in the sunlight. Like her talent, though,
  the instrument will not be destroyed. After she brings home Barenboim
  to introduce him to the family, we see her wedding. Out of the blue one
  day, she arrives at Hilary's home in the country and proceeds to act
  strangely. The most outrageous request is that she wants to sleep
  with Finzi! More outrageously, Hilary allows it. This is the part of the
  story that has attracted the most criticism in the United Kingdom,
  but Hilary du Pré Finzi claims it to be true and even her children back
  up the story. Shortly thereafter, Jackie begins to show signs of fatigue
  and muscle failure and is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

          What makes this film a cut above the usual are the strong
  performances from the two actresses in the titular roles. When she
  burst on the scene a few short years ago in her Oscar-nominated turn
BREAKING THE WAVES, Emily Watson proved her facility for
  playing characters on the edge. As Jacqueline du Pré, she perfectly
  captures the unruly, slightly spoiled quality of a star musician but
  also shows the pain and fear that drives the ego as well. Hers is a
  galvanic portrayal—one that teeters on the border of being just too
  much, but Watson is skilled enough not to go over the top. As she
  has the showier role, she has also been heaping the lion's share of
  praise which is a gross injustice to her co-star Rachel Griffiths. An
  Australian by birth, Griffiths first caught attention for her supporting
  roles in
MURIEL'S WEDDING and JUDE. While not as beautiful as
  Watson, this actress is her equal as far as ability and provides
    HILARY AND JACKIE with its anchor. She and Watson play marvelously
  off one another and one easily accepts them as sisters. Griffiths also
  makes the audience almost understand how Hilary could allow —
  indeed encourage — her husband to sleep with her sister.

          The supporting roles are also well-cast. Charles Dance does well
  as the patriarch of the du Pré family while Celia Imrie strikes the right
  notes as the matriarch. James Frain, so good in
ELIZABETH does what
  he can with the role of Barenboim, but he is hamstrung by the script
  which treads lightly over his affairs and his reputation as a taskmaster.
  More successful is David Morrisey who brings a sexy charisma to the role
  of Kiffer Finzi.

          While the story of Jacqueline du Pré can be read as another in
  the line of stories of troubled geniuses who suffer for their art,
  Cottrell Boyce's screenplay and Tucker's direction attempt to move it
  into a more universal realm. By focusing on the relationship between
  the sisters and in the acting of Watson and Griffiths, they have
  fashioned a chamber piece. While its tune may not be for everyone's
  ears, anyone who is interested in classical music, familial relationships
  or a art films should not be disappointed.

Rating:          B
© 2007 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.