Hilary and Jackie (1998)

D: Anand Tucker
S: Emily Watson, Rachel Griffiths

Well acted if not entirely satisfying drama based upon the life of musician Jacqueline du Pre which posits a pyscho-sexual sibling rivalry between she and her sister Hilary which had a fundamental effect on both of their careers. Essentially this is Shine meets What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? ; a combination of fanciful musical biopic and arch melodrama which while it doesn't always work, succeeds for the most part in detailing an intense personal relationship between the sisters (even when they are not in each other's presence) which defines the rest of the action.

The film chooses a deliberately fragmented structure, beginning with the girls' childhood then breaking away to focus first on Hilary's side of the story, then Jackie's. This gambit works insofar as it provides some variety of action, but it's not hard to see this as an attempt to ape Shine's flashback/flashforward style. The same problem runs throughout the film, with many thematic and visual ideas being borrowed from the hugely successful Oscar winner, including a 'symbolic' use of Elgar's Cello Concerto and even a moment where Jackie drops her bow on the stage in slow motion which is uncannily similar to the scene in Shine where David Helfgott collapsed at the end of his performance of the Rach 3.

These points may seem like anorak finger pointing, but they do affect the way in which you view the film. The material is derived from the biography of Jacqueline du Pre written by Hilary and their brother Piers, and many have questioned the 'reality' of the portrayal of the musician in both book and film. In order to make the film interesting, it was necessary to find a way to dramatise reality sufficiently to heighten the significance of the events, which inevitably brings the film makers to look for a template, which is Shine. The same thinking is behind the excess of camera movement (there are way too many dizzying tracking shots around the cellist on stage), and the ever-present element of scandal which underlies much of what happens.

The film is never entirely convincing on this level, with insufficient genuine insight into Jackie's experiences touring Europe away from her family to explain her subsequent outrageous behaviour (including an extraordinary demand to sleep with Hilary's husband after leaving her own). Focusing first on Hilary gives tantalising glimpses of Jackie's transformation into a radical performer (in more sense than one), and we wait for the rationale eagerly. Alas when the film finally comes to focus on the missing segments of the story from Jackie's point of view, there are some half-hearted observations about loneliness and homesickness which don't fully justify the level of shock and excess to which she seems to have gone as a result. The film's final act then charts her tragic descent into sickness and death in which an eventual reconciliation with Hilary comes just before the end, and it seems to come from another genre entirely.

Rising above most of these considerations are Emily Watson as Jackie and Rachel Griffiths as Hilary, both of whom give convincing and involving performances. Watson (The Boxer) is a little OTT at times, but she has been the darling of the critics since Breaking the Waves for her energy and honesty, which she applies here to a character whose psychological quirks may or may not be true to life. Griffiths (Divorcing Jack , My Son the Fanatic) plays the more subdued sister with an authentic degree of inner turmoil, and the two play well together when they share the screen in a variety of moods and tones. Though flawed, Hilary and Jackie is worth seeing if only for these performances, though this may not justify all of its failings if you are not prepared to take at least some of the events with a pinch of salt and some tongue in cheek.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.