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Hilary and Jackie

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All-Reviews.com Movie Review: Hilary and Jackie

Starring: Emily Watson, Rachel Griffiths
Director: Anand Tucker
Rated: R
RunTime: 120 Minutes
Release Date: January 1999
Genres: Drama, Music


*Also starring: James Frain, David Morrisey, Charles Dance, Celia Imrie, Rupert Penry-Jones, Bill Paterson, Nyree Dawn Porter, Vernon Dobtcheff



Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

On the way out of a critics' screening of "Hilary & Jackie," a fellow reviewer remarked to me, "That sure was well done, but it was a downer....I would hardly call it a date movie." "No," I replied, "But it's a chick flick." Well, now, to call October Films' "Hilary & Jackie" a chick flick may be valid, but it would rank with the most reductive declarations anyone could possibly make. It's a complex study of one of the century's most famous and accomplished cellists, one that necessarily leaves out much detail but adds some discreet fictionalizations for dramatic effect. The downer to which my colleague referred, musician Jacqueline Du Pre's death after a heroic sixteen years' long struggle with multiple sclerosis, adds quite a tragic dimension. Shunning the deadly format that a biopic could take, Frank Cottrell Boyce's screenplay directed with a high regard for emotional truth by Anand Tucker focuses on the complicated relationship between Ms. Du Pre and her sister, Hilary, from the time that Hilary and Jackie were five years old and living in England's Sussex County.

Anyone who has grown up an only child can only imagine the many difficulties and rewards of having brothers and sisters. During their early years, the Du Pre girls ran through the expected gamut of emotions, each envious in the turn of the other, each desiring something of the attention that the other is receiving at any given moment. But the core feeling is one of joy, shown in the very opening scene as the two little girls run and giggle across a beach, pretending that it is the Kalahari Desert, the entire movie framed by a communication which Jackie receives from a mysterious stranger facing the breaking waves. Director Tucker shows the Du Pre world as one which was in many ways conventional, living in a large house and enjoying domestic comforts. But the two girls are obviously influenced heavily by their mother, who composes music for them; Hilary playing it on her flute while her sister joins her in duets on her cello. The competition between the sibs is predictable, as first Hilary, then Jackie, is lauded for their accomplishments at such a young age.

The story proceeds chronologically, as Jackie comes from behind to exceed her sister's abilities and to give a major concert recital at the age of sixteen. At one point, Tucker divides the movie into two segments, one called "Hilary," the other "Jackie" in a well-conceived attempt to show the effects of each musician's separate experiences on their relationship. While the typical educated viewer might assume that Jackie got the better deal--aware that Jacqueline Du Pre went on to world-wide fame with her instrument while her sister faded into a conventional nature--life has a way of confounding expectations. While Hilary drops plans to become a professional flutist, Jackie embarks on a whirlwind tour of European capitals such as Vienna, Moscow, Berlin and Madrid. Unhappily, she has become alienated and depressed by being compelled to travel far from home and desires so much to become an ordinary person like Hilary that at one point she makes an unconscionable demand on her sister-- which in a review should not be given away.

"Hilary and Jackie" is freighted with darling touches such as the older Mrs. Du Pre's reaction upon hearing that Jackie is love with concert leader and pianist Daniel Barenboim. Thinking with a sigh of relief that the name is German, she looks positively dejected when informed that the great man is Jewish: "Oh, dear," she responds, though she and her husband happily make the trip to Jerusalem to attend their daughter's wedding. Jackie has converted to Judaism to the disbelief of her father: "She CAN'T be Jewish...her hair is blond!"

Emily Watson as Jacqueline Du Pre and Rachel Griffiths as her sister Hilary are wonderful together, with Ms. Griffiths providing the necessary support to give Emily Watson a go for an Academy Award as best actress. Ms. Watson, who first dazzled American audiences with her role in the Danish movie, "Breaking the Waves," is out to break the hearts of the audience, first by her deep unhappiness with her travels and her need to maintain her status as a world-class musician; then far more by the dreaded neurological disorder that sees her initially unable to manipulate her hands and ultimately, bedridden, shaking uncontrollably and unable to express a single thought. James Frain's role as Daniel Barenboim is not likely to do much for his reputation, as Mr. Boyce's screenplay portrays him fathering a child in Paris while his wife is home in England, wheelchair-bound and suffering from intense loneliness.

Since Ms. Watson is known to be an accomplished cellist, she has no problem pretending that it is she, and not the actual recordings of Ms. Du Pre, who is filling the screen with glorious albeit an insufficient amount of music. As a biopic, "Hilary and Jackie" may be conventional by the standards of a Ken Russell, but Anand Tucker's choices work splendidly to flesh out an unusual relationship between one of the century's great musicians and the less talented sister whose life she so envied.

Copyright 1998 Harvey Karten

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