Screenplay : Scott Hicks and Jan Sardi
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 1996
Stars : Geoffery Rush (David Helfgott), Armin Mueller-Stah (Peter Helfgott), Noah Taylor (Adolescent David), Lynn Redgrave (Gillian), John Gielgud (Cecil Parks)
Scott Hicks' "Shine" tells the story of a man who is almost ruined by his own gift. The man's name is David Helfgott, and he was an Australian child prodigy, a boy whose gift for playing the piano was so extraordinary that he seemed immediately destined for greatness.
Unfortunately, David's life was ruled by his father, Peter (Armin Mueller-Stah). Their relationship is solidified early in the film when it shows David, after losing a talent competition, skipping behind his father who stalks with his head down, grimacing. The second his sister sees them coming up the sidewalk, she says, "Oh, no, David didn't win." Or later, when David pauses after being asked on stage what he's willing to give to his music, Peter frantically cries out from backstage, telling him what to say: "Everything! Everything!"
Peter Helfgott was a Polish Jew who lost most of his family in the Holocaust, and therefore he wanted to keep tight control over his family. The central conflict in "Shine" is that Peter pushes his son to make the most of his gift ("You must always win!" he tells him), yet when that gift begins to blossom and take David with it, Peter won't let him go. When David gets the chance to go to America to study music, to everyone else it seems like the just reward for a talented boy, but Peter can only see it as willful destruction of his family, something he won't allow.
If Peter had been shown only as the tyrannical patriarch of a bullied family, the film would have been one-dimensional and slight. But the screenplay by Hicks and Jan Sardi paints him in several different strokes, showing that he was a hard worker and a dedicated father. He was capable of tenderness, but he was also capable of extreme violence, such as when he whips David repeatedly with a wet towel after finding out he urinated in the bathtub.
David, on the other hand, is more like his timid mother than his father. He is quiet and introverted, somewhat nerdish with his greasy hair and goofy glasses. He looks like the class clown until he sits before a keyboard, and then you realize what gifts reside in his frail body. He is portrayed magnificently in all three stages of his life: as a young boy by Alex Rafalowicz, as an adolescent by Noah Taylor, and as an adult by Geoffery Rush.
David finally gathers the will to revolt against his father when he is offered a scholarship to attend the Royal College of Music in London. This decision is a terrible, emotionally distraught moment because David is forced to choose between his father, and the abilities his father pushed him to develop. "If you leave now, you will never be able to come back through that door," Peter tells him. And the audience knows he means it.
At the Royal College of Music, David studies under an old master (Sir John Gielgud). David's goal is to play the difficult Rachmaninov Concierto No. 3, a piece his father had wanted him to master since he was a child. Much is made of the nature of the "Rach 3" and the level of emotion is takes to play it out. Gielgud tells him that the Concierto is like two contradicting halves, showing how the piece of music is so much like David's relationship to his father. When he finally steps on stage to play it, the emotion pours forth, but it is too much for him to handle. Years of pressure to be the best and the realization that he has achieved the goals of a father who has disowned him are too much, and he collapses on stage in a nervous breakdown.
As an adult, David spends much of that time in the care of a mental institution, where he talks in a rapid, excessive chatter that loops back on words and employs endless repetition that usually delves into meaninglessness. He laughs incessantly and always wants to hold onto someone. He seems almost disturbingly affectionate toward everyone he meets, and any traces of the introverted genius of his childhood are gone. No longer allowed to play the piano under doctor's orders, David's life loses meaning, and there's no telling how many years have wasted away. Several people try to help him, but his true salvation comes in the form of Gillian (Lynn Redgrave), an astrologer who falls in love with him, marries him, and helps him get back on stage, doing what he does best.
Although "Shine" does some time jumping, it is almost evenly divided between David's childhood and his adulthood. The first half is infinitely better than the second half, and I find it ironic that when people think of this film, they think of the great performance by Geoffery Rush. His acting is superb, but the part of the film he inhabits doesn't feel as full as the first half. It seems a bit rushed, and I never fully accepted his marriage to Gillian. The film doesn't take enough time to follow their relationship, and it never rings true why she would fall in love with this endlessly smiling, blabbering, breast-groping man. I suppose we're supposed to assume that she's so charmed by his spirit that she couldn't help herself, but it never feels quite right.
Hicks uses a variety of cinematic tricks such as point-of-view, slow motion and sound distortion to convey the David's conflicting emotions. He makes great use of water imagery -- reflective beads of rain on car hoods, overflowing sinks, glistening bands of sweat and slow motion shots of water dripping from a faucet.
Water has always been a symbol of rejuvenation, whether that be Christian baptism or a cleansing bath. It is obviously the sense of a victorious recovery of life that attracted Hicks to David's story in the first place.
As David stands triumphant on stage once again at the end of the film, you are stabbed with the reminder that his life never should have taken the turns it did. Like everything else in this world, genius is a fragile thing, and it's a shame that his was almost destroyed. The fact that he is now on tour again is testament to the strength of the human spirit, and it's ability to persevere.
©1997 James Kendrick