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Hilary and Jackie

Review by Elias Savada
Posted 1 January 1999

  Directed by Anand Tucker.

Starring Emily Watson, Rachel Griffiths,
David Morrissey, James Frain,
Charles Dance and Celia Imrie.

Screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce,
based on the book A Genius in the Family
by Hilary du Pré and Piers du Pré.

Emily Watson is one of the most brilliant actresses performing today, and her explosive screen debut in Breaking the Waves and solid performance opposite Daniel Day-Lewis in The Boxer is now followed by another brutally honest portrayal of British musical prodigy Jacqueline du Pré. She again proves worthy of Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations, perhaps taking home a statuette this time, in an absorbing film chronicling the true story of two sisters that shared a common gift and then some.

The feature debut of director Anand Tucker, an award-winning documentarian, is striking and subtle, showing marvelous control of the cast. He takes the layers spun in the screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce (Welcome to Sarajevo) and effectively tells a compelling, human tale -- based on the memoir of Hilary du Pré and her brother Piers -- filled with emotional tumbles and turns. The structure follows two points of view, first from the stability of one sibling, then, like a skewered game of connect-the-dots, from her other, more troubling, soulmate. Watson as cellist Jacquline du Pré and Rachel Griffiths as her sister Hilary -- don’t confuse the film’s title as a movie about two of America’s First Ladies -- fill two hours with marvelous moments, mimicking the extraordinary talents of their real life counterparts. Griffiths, who won acclaim and several Australian film awards for the role (her first) as Rhonda, a party animal turned cynical invalid, in Muriel’s Wedding (1994), adds to a particularly strong cast.

The cinematic life of the du Pré sisters begins as a coda, the two carefree pre-teens (Keely Flanders and Auriol Evans) playing on a deserted, sun-drenched, English beach in the 1950s, a distant, ghost-like woman imparting hushed words that everything will be all right. In the beginning, it’s Hilary who shows the most promise as a dark-haired, accomplished flutist, with Jackie as fledgling cellist, both under the encouraging eyes of their stage parents (Celia Imrie and Charles Dance). Growing jealous of her sibling’s remarkable talent, Jackie decides she’d rather be a Hertz than an Avis and their victory at a renown festival of music cements Jackie’s fame, the camera swirling around her, a reward for her endless hours of practice. This 15-minute prelude leads to the now grown prodigy performing an energetic, frenetic solo, her head and blond hair flying about within the moving camera frame, a photographic precursor to Jackie’s dizzying international tour of sold-out concerts in Vienna, Moscow, Berlin, Madrid, and beyond, her bond with Hilary continually strained by the distance.

Meanwhile, at home with her parents in London, a saddened Hilary is swept off her feet by Kiffer Finzi (David Morrissey), an extremely outgoing fellow who storms into her life, with marriage following shortly after the couple take in a screening of Jules and Jim.. The newlyweds settle into a small farm in the country, a musical career abandoned to raise a picture perfect family. Jackie hastily marries Jewish pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim (James Fraim), converts to Judaism (to the disdain of her mother and father, both closet anti-semites), but their whirlwind relationship is sexually vacuous and emotionally stressful, sharing only a love of music. The two couples have very different lifestyles, until the day a moody, troubled Jacqueline shows up at the doorstep of her sister in a desperate state of confusion.

The story shortly thereafter picks up from Jackie’s angle, filling in gaps in the earlier narrative, fleshing out intentionally drawn misunderstandings. This point/counterpoint approach resembles a similar script device used in 1991’s He Said, She Said. Unlike that warmed-over comedy, the writing mechanism works well here. The material’s better, as is the direction and the acting. As we move deeper into this segment of the picture, Watson’s terrifying interpretation of her role hits you like a sledgehammer. Jacqueline’s discovery and tragic struggle with multiple sclerosis is harrowing. Watson’s energy peeks in numerous scenes in this section, including one on the concert stage as she drops her bow. A performance later leaves her drained, of emotion, and of strength, immobilized amid the muffled applause of an appreciative audience.

In the male dominated world of Hollywood (yeah, I know the film was made in England), it’s rare to see a film with such a strong female lead. Here you have two! Not to diminish the wonderful work of Griffiths, this is Watson’s film, and she is the one people will talk about long after leaving the theater. Adept at playing tortured creatures touched by sadness, she positively shines every moment on screen. Both ladies are remarkably true in their textured view of sibling rivalry, jealousy, and affection, and it’s a treat to watch them together.

First presented at the Venice and Toronto Film Festival earlier in 1998, distributor October Films has positioned Hillary and Jackie for limited year-end release as a serious Oscar contender, with more openings due in mid-January. This one’s a winner.

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