When you think of the greatest actors living today, a few names almost always come to mind. Anthony Hopkins, Sean Penn, Daniel Day-Lewis, Meryl Streep, Ralph Fiennes, etc. Among those is Australian actor, Geoffrey Rush, who is one of the few actors who has won the “Triple Crown of Acting” (an Academy Award, a Tony Award, and an Emmy Award). In 1996, Rush made his breakthrough film performance in SHINE, which led him to win the Academy Award for Best Actor (the film was nominated for 7 Academy Awards, including Best Picture). SHINE was the sort of movie that seemed designed to generate critical acclaim and accolades. It’s a true story about a child prodigy. 1 point. Its about a family with a stern patriarch who’s obsessed with keeping his family together after losing his in the Holocaust. Another point. The film deals with mental illness, which the main character suffers from. Another point.

SHINE is based on the life of David Helfgott, a gifted Australian piano prodigy who suffered a mental breakdown (schizoaffective disorder) and spent years in mental institutions. As a boy, he displayed a gift for playing the piano and was driven by his overbearing father (Armin Mueller-Stahl) to succeed. At the same time, David was also encouraged to help keep his family united and strong. To that end, his father forbade him from accepting a scholarship with famous violinist Isaac Stern. However, through the encouragement of others, David gathered the courage to leave his family and study at the Royal College of Music in London under the tutelage of Cecil Parks (John Gielgud). Unfortunately, David soon suffered a nervous breakdown after he performed Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 3.” After years spent in mental institutions and now an adult, David is released and finds himself playing in a bar to crowded audiences. David eventually found his now-wife, Gillian (Lynn Redgrave), an astrologer who helped David regain his fame. SHINE’s success led to a new discovery of Helfgott’s talents and a musical tour. However, audiences were reportedly disappointed in Helfgott’s performances, which led to criticism that director Scott Hicks exaggerated David Helfgott’s talents for dramatic purposes.

I’m not way off about SHINE being manipulative by design. The film generated a good amount of controversy for altering some of the story’s facts. Margaret Helfgott, the sister of SHINE’s main character (David Helfgott), disputed the film’s portrayal of the father as being an abusive, tyrannical despot. She described her father as being a loving husband and an over-lenient parent. Although her account has been disputed by Scott Hicks, SHINE’s director, and John Macgregor (who was involved in the research and wrote the film’s treatment), it is difficult to give credence to their claims given their self-interest in ensuring the film’s success, which partly depends on maintaining its factual credibility. I suspect that cultural differences in how a father should run his family is what has generated differing attitudes toward Helfgott’s father. To most Westerners, the father’s overbearing nature would be viewed as being abusive because the father would be deemed to be manipulative and to be holding his son back from golden opportunities that will help his future. In contrast, there is the view that the father truly cares about his son and his welfare. He believes that he has his son’s best interests in mind and he wants him to succeed as best he can but to also remember that family always comes first. Given the Helfgott family’s background, this latter view appears more credible to me.

Another controversy that arose after the film’s release was David Helfgott’s actual piano ability. Critics claimed that SHINE glamorized and grossly exaggerated Helfgott’s ability. Helfgott’s early career successes were factual and such musical giants as violinist Isaac Stern, conductor Daniel Barenboim, and Helfgott’s Royal Academy tutors all praised Helfgott’s ability and considered him a genius. However, the quality of Helfgott’s performances after the release of SHINE do not accurately reflect what was portrayed in the movie. Again, I get the sense the filmmakers manipulated the facts in order to make Helfgott’s comeback all the more impressive.

However, despite SHINE’s obvious Oscar baiting, the film is entertaining both story-wise and in watching the strong performances from Geoffrey Rush and Armin Mueller-Stahl, both acting giants in my opinion. At the same time, now that many years have gone by and the euphoria over Rush’s performance has passed, I am reluctant to consider Rush’s performance as constituting his best work or even as exemplary (for better work check out QUILLS and THE KING’S SPEECH). It remains a very good performance, but in watching it recently, it seemed more like Rush was aping/mimicking David Helfgott rather than being the character. Furthermore, I wanted to see the progress Helfgott made in dealing with his mental illness. Instead we see Helfgott breaking down and we see nothing after that until he is let out of the mental hospital.

I was actually more taken in by Mueller-Stahl’s performance, which nicely balances the father’s harsh, overbearing-ness toward his son with the love he has for David. I suppose some might say that Mueller-Stahl gives the same sort of performance in every film he appears in, but even so, he displays such natural talent and intensity that you are always mesmerized by watching him do his thing. As with David Helfgott, I wish we saw more of Peter Helfgott’s life. What did he do for a living? I also got a sense that he was envious of members of the upper class, who took a liking to his son but seemed to ignore him.

One of the issues I have with SHINE now that I did not when I first saw it in theaters is that the film’s jumping between the present and the past takes away from the flow of the story. Jumping back and forth does not give any further insight into David Helfgott’s youth nor his adult life. The film would have been better served had the story run its course linearly. Furthermore, I was left wondering what exactly happened to David Helfgott. He supposedly has a nervous breakdown, but this is not clear in the film. After he performs Rachmaninoff at a final’s competition, he falls to the ground and the next thing we know he’s in a mental institution. I wish the film further explored what David was suffering from and how he simply unraveled. Its obvious his father’s influence over him was a cause of this, but this is also not clear, especially because he does break off from his family to go study in London so presumably you would think he would no longer be so stressed about his father. Was his effort to play a difficult piano piece as Rachmaninoff too stressful for his mind to handle? If so, that seems a bit ridiculous to me.

I appreciate the filmmakers’ decision to not inject SHINE with cheap sentimentality that is usually present in these types of films, but they fall into another trap: that of simply offering choice highlights from David Helfgott’s life, which leaves a lot of unexplained gaps in his life story. For example, what made Gillian (Lynn Redgrave) fall in love with Helfgott to marry him? How did Helfgott overcome his mental illness through the help of his new wife and make a comeback? Supposedly, Gillian was his second wife so who was the first wife and whatever happened to her? Although Scott Hicks refrains from sentimentalizing Helfgott’s life and his comeback, I think it would have given this film a lot more dramatic weight, which it deserved so much. The idea of someone being so gifted but whose dreams are frustrated by his father and by his own mental breakdown promises an almost epic arc for the character. Hicks does a fine job in portraying the barriers to Helfgott’s training and career. Where he stumbles is showing us how Helfgott overcame his issues and came back later in life. We see hints of it, but the third act is so rushed that we can only guess at the details.

Like AMADEUS, watching this film will likely turn you into a fan of classical music. AMADEUS did that for me when I was young and SHINE turned me onto Rachmaninoff. The film has a wonderful soundtrack, but its probably better to just go ahead and get all of Rachmaninoff’s music and listen to how insanely complex this man’s music is. By the way, Geoffrey Rush learned piano when he was young, but he stopped at 14 years of age. For this film, he picked the piano back up and he is actually playing the piano in the film.

SHINE remains a watchable and entertaining film. Whatever factual inaccuracies or exaggerations the film may contain about David Helfgott’s life, his story is fascinating mainly because its always nice to see a person overcome his/her personal demons to accomplish his/her dreams. This film will always be mostly remembered for Geoffrey Rush’s performance. Although Rush’s performance doesn’t impress me as much as it did when I first saw him in 1996, it remains a strong performance and I’m glad he received the attention that he did because otherwise, we may never have had the pleasure of seeing more Geoffrey Rush in better movies later on.

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