By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 15, 1999; Page C01
Classical music: threat or menace?
That seems to be the thrust of "Hilary and Jackie," an examination of two siblings enmeshed in performance culture from a very young age to adulthood and professionalism, which sees the classical musician's education as a form of child abuse.
Possibly it is. Consider: really sensitive, exquisitely gifted and almost always hyper-intelligent children forced through a meat grinder of parental aspiration, imperious teachers and brutal competition. No wonder so many end so royally screwed up. Surely violin camp, in its way, is as violent as football camp. Is the music, blissful as it is, worth it? That's the question the movie is really asking.
The film focuses on the sublimely talented du Pre sisters, English children raised in the '50s in a heady musical family, nurtured, taught, guided, directed. This is how geniuses are created, but it's also how monsters are.
Poor Hilary, the flutist. Initially the prodigy, she has an early childhood that is one triumph after another, and her parents dote on her blindly while ignoring the less compelling younger girl, Jackie. Hilary is the adored one, the anointed one. No wonder Hilary fails.
No wonder Jackie succeeds. Hers is a lifelong mission to get Mummy and Daddy to notice, then all the teachers, finally all the world. It helps that hers is the rarer talent by far (the authentic du Pre is regarded by some as one of the great musical prodigies of the 20th century, though the film fails to make this point) and against everyone's expectations, the tiny girl with the big cello wins a contest and has the life of the international concert musician her family had expected to be Hilary's. She then sets out to punish everybody who didn't love her enough and loved her sister too much. Yet she is clearly unhinged by her gift and never comfortable in her success. In her heart, one suspects, she deeply believes it was supposed to happen to Hilary. She was supposed to be the one in the corner, the one nobody ever took any pictures of.
The film tracks the entwined adulthood of each child and the entwined disappointments. It's an orchestration of neuroses, possibly fascinating to behold but which cannot have been any fun at all to endure. Neither, really, is happy. Each feels lost in the other's life; each can't quite overcome the anger that she feels for the other while at the same time neither can walk away from the love she feels so desperately for the other. Theirs is the love-hate that dare not speak its name.
The beloved Emily Watson plays the more flamboyant Jackie, who becomes the cello diva of the international set, a close friend of Dame Margot Fonteyn and ultimately wife of the sexiest classical piano player on Earth, Daniel Barenboim (James Frain). Yet the film follows her peripatetic life and it seems that she shrinks, while the cello grows larger. It's like an abusive lover, always there, always linked to her, always dominating her, swelling (in travel stickers, if nothing else) while she becomes more desperate as she pushes it through this or that airport. She tries to kill it by leaving it out in the snow.
Her most pathetic gesture is to leave her tour and her fiance and show up at sis's farmhouse, a woman on the verge of a cello-induced nervous breakdown. Hilary, on the other hand, has by this time been so disabused of notions of genius -- a teacher who seems like Joe Stalin (after a month on the Pritikin diet) has ripped her ego to shreds with smirk -- that she's given up and married a wonderful but equally second-rate guy, Kiffer Finzi (David Morrissey). But Jackie, who has trumped her in every single way but one, needs that one: She needs to sleep with Jackie's husband.
Rachel Griffiths plays Hilary, and in many ways it's the more accomplished performance. Watson gets all the showy moments: the disease (the multiple sclerosis that killed Jackie in 1987), promiscuity, tremors and deliriums, manipulation, self-hatred and even any actress's favorite thing, a chance to vomit on-screen. Griffiths must react to all this, usually with alarm but always with an undercurrent of resentment at war with genuine love. You can feel her struggle: Not being a genius, she has no presumed right to impulsiveness, so she must assert will against her feelings and make the conscious, even heroic, effort to be and stay good.
The movie is exquisitely directed by Anand Tucker in an anti-documentary style that sometimes fractures the time sequence, sometimes re-creates moments impressionistically instead of objectively and is vivid in style. Crackerjack editing (Martin Walsh) keeps the thing hurling along like the war movie that "The Thin Red Line" turned out not to be.
And like a war movie, it asks the same question: Was it worth it? The film suggests not. It's very sad.
Hilary and Jackie (121 minutes, at the Cineplex Odeon Outer Circle)
is rated R for sexual suggestiveness, emotional intensity and lots of grown-up
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