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Review: Two faces to pain in 'Hilary and Jackie'

Web posted on:
Friday, January 15, 1999 10:51:11 AM EST

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- Anand Tucker's "Hilary and Jackie" is either an incredibly complex movie or an incredibly confusing one. Since I can't seem to make up my mind which one it is, I guess I'll have to cast my vote for confusing. It's a true story based on the lives of Hilary and Jackie Du Pré, two musical protégés in 1960s England, one of whom withdraws from the music world to start a family.

The other navigates a career as a concert cellist, is lauded the world over for her genius, turns into an insufferable jerk because of it (or maybe in spite of it), and then withers away at the height of her creative powers with a case of multiple sclerosis. Screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce also throws in husband-sharing, the suggestion that maybe talent alone doesn't always win out, love/hate forms of affection, and strange sisterly connections that move far beyond the realm of coinciding menstrual cycles.

Theatrical preview for "Hilary and Jackie"

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Feature: 'Hilary and Jackie' chronicles a close-knit family relationship

In other words, you get a little bit of everything, and, story-wise, it gets to be pretty messy after a while. Tucker knows how to put together a sequence, though, reaching visual crescendos to the strains of Sir Edward Elgar's "Cello Concerto in E Minor," and he does something interesting with the structure. But it's impossible to juggle this much information and still make a completely coherent film.

Good, just jumbled

It's not anywhere near a washout, just kind of disorderly. There are a couple of very good performances here, with one being so immediately flashy its mere existence is enough to rake in truckloads of acclaim. Think "My Left Foot" crossed with "Shine;" if that's not a recipe for multiple award nominations (regardless of the actual accomplishment by the actor involved), I don't know what is.

Flautist Hilary Du Pré (Rachel Griffiths) and her cellist sister, Jackie (Emily Watson, the one who's barreling towards those nominations) are shown as school-age children in a lengthy prologue during which their mother trains them in classical music technique.

At first, it looks like Hilary is the one who's going to have a major career. People repeatedly say things to Jackie like "You have an extraordinary sister," then she shuffles off to the corner as Hilary is awarded another prize. Eventually, though, Jackie shows more commitment and surpasses even her sister's astonishing technique. Whether this was accomplished by sheer backbone or a late-blossoming ability is never made clear, and I think it's the first piece of puzzlement in a pretty bewildering script.

Then we leap ahead to adulthood, and this is where Tucker plays around with the usual rules of storytelling. The movie is now cut into two "movements," the first one (called "Hilary" in a title card; the second is "Jackie"), follows that character as she leaves music, gets married, and starts a family at a cozy house out in the country. Life is a smooth ride for Hilary until the now world-famous Jackie shows up at the farm after inexplicably breaking up with her equally acclaimed concert pianist husband, Daniel Barenbolm (James Frain).

Now personified by Watson, Jackie has turned into something of a psycho. She despises her fame, despises the very cello that brought it to her, and (though the script often suggests otherwise) also seems to despise her own sister. She doesn't despise her sister's husband, though. One day Jackie starts begging Hilary to let her sleep with the guy.

Rather than smacking her in the mouth or throwing her down the well, Hilary then talks her husband into it! Evidently she sees her sister as a tortured artist whose creativity forces her to live by a different code of ethics, but people throughout the theater were yelping in dismay at this turn of events. It may have happened in real life, but Hilary seems to be inviting psychological torture from Jackie, and God only knows why. Whenever it seems like you might find out, you simply get another cello recital.

Convincing portrait of madness

Then Tucker cuts to the "Jackie" portion of our program, and things start to make a little more sense. For a while. We now get to see exactly how tortured Jackie is, and she's not doing too well. Watson gets to dig into all kinds of barely understandable inner monologues, and do crazy artist things like purposefully leaving her priceless cello outside in a snowstorm and hyperactively speaking nonsense to a bunch of adulatory German fans.

The idea is that she doesn't trust her success because people never want to know anything about her as a person. They only care about her as an instrument, something (instead of someone) that makes glorious music.

Well, that's a bummer, but you don't know bummers until you see Watson falling into the horrendous grasp of multiple sclerosis. I don't want to give the impression that I wasn't taken with Watson's work. She puts her back into every one of her performances, old-school Robert De Niro style, and even learned to play the cello in preparation for this movie! But the MS (and the accompanying conniption fits that it brings on in this headstrong character) allow her to fall into operatic displays of pain and suffering that are sure to please anyone who likes to see actors reach for the big prize.

I'm convinced that Watson will win an Oscar in the next few years, and rightfully so, but this particular role seems less like a role than it does an acceptance speech. It's based more on brute force than it is on any kind of music.

"Hilary and Jackie" contains bad language, some sex, and that nutty situation with the husband swapping. It's obviously intended for mature audiences, so kids wouldn't be interested anyway. The music, by the way, is tremendous. The hoity Upper West Side ladies that I saw it with almost wet themselves during the concert scenes. Rated R. 121 minutes.

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