Exceptional lives about extraordinary people always make good book and movie sense. The possibilities are limitless and the audience favours a bit of an inside peek at the lives of the rich and famous. This is the case with Hilary And Jackie, a film based on the lives of Hilary and Jacqueline du Pre, and the basis of the book, A Genius In The Family by Hilary and her brother, Piers.
We are taken on a roller coaster ride of grand proportions as the du Pre parents, Derek (Charles Dance) and Iris (Celia Imrie) watch their two daughters, Hilary (Rachel Griffiths) and Jackie (Emily Watson), attempt to span the Mt. Everest of the classical world with their music. All starts out well enough, with Hilary, a flautist, taking centre stage and Jackie taking a back-seat until receiving that extra push from her mother, who was also a classically trained pianist, to excel. And excel she does. The two young girls who portray the du Pre sisters as children, Auriol Evans (Jackie) and Keely Flanders (Hilary) are exquisite in their innocence and understanding needed to comprehend the complexities required to master both the sense of competition and the sisterly understanding that permeated their relationship throughout their lives. We see the emotions of both spiraling in opposite directions as Hilary is pushed into submission and Jackie flaunts superiority on her cello. Hilary is forced on almost a daily basis to hear from one and all, "and how is your wonderful sister, Jackie?" as she goes deeper and deeper into the background, almost fading into the wall, as her musical star burns and fades all too quickly. She will never be good enough to compete.
Jackie is portrayed as forceful, a tornado, wholly spoiled and used to getting her own way, even to the point of wanting her sister's husband, Kiffer (David Morrissey), and getting him. Jackie, never one to be bested by others, attempts to play the game of one upsmanship with her sister and eventually marries the Argentine piano prodigy, Daniel Barenboim (James Frain). But, as is wont to happen throughout Jackie's life, nothing is ever good enough to remain for long, as she is firmly the architect of her own choosing. The supreme irony occurs when she is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at the age of 28, seeing her career ebb and flow until she is a shaking skeleton of her former self, as she descends into final illness and imminent death at 42.
The actresses portraying Hilary and Jackie, Rachel Griffiths and Emily Watson, do superb jobs in recreating two very interesting enigmas and the world they inhabited. Much was made when A Genius In The Family was published, for it took the goddess on the pedestal, Jackie, and shook the very foundations with its portrayal of her as vain, self absorbed, unkind and a sexual predator towards her sister's husband. Those in England were shocked that Hilary would have shared such personal memories for all the world to read, and she caught a great deal of flack because of it. I feel that this has nothing to do with the music that Jackie made, and while it may put her in less of a favourable light than we would like on a personal level, it does nothing to negate the genius that she was to become and who holds a firm grasp even to this day, almost 16 years after her death. There are those in the music world who refuse to play her most famous cello rendition, Elgar's Cello Concerto, in tribute to her accomplishment. Hilary has presented Jackie with all her credits and flaws in striking fashion. What is history or biography unless we are presented with a complete and absolute portrait? A shallow representation not worthy of mention.
Rachel Griffiths is the more interesting of the two actresses, for her performances is multilayered, presenting stratas of the plain Jane who becomes the doormat that her sister walks over in her pursuit of greatness. Watching Griffiths facial expression change from warm to cold as she is asked by Jackie to share her husband with her, is worth the price of admission, and that small action presents her as an actress completely in possession of her craft. She's that rare animal that performs with controlled and yet unsubjected abandon and it is a delight to be on the receiving end.
Emily Watson's Jackie is both engaging and obnoxious, rather bleeding over the top in her representation. Jacqueline du Pre was not as difficult in real life, although at times she was and could be a force to be reckoned with. She owned a sense of humour, was not as gifted or musically knowledgeable outside of her collected realm of works and could throw poison barbs out with the best of them. Watson seems to go for the worst and nothing of Jackie's generosity is to be seen in the course of this film.
Arnand Tucker, the director, has fashioned a first time effort with smartness and finesse, and has used a Rashomon technique to project this layered tale from the perspective of both sisters. Hilary's version being presented first and Jackie's, imperialistic and heartbreaking, the second. Similar situations as seen through different eyes. He has used a genuine facet of believability with the opening of the movie, as we see the two sisters as children on a beach, before the glory days. They see a mysterious woman on the same beach, who tells Jackie that everything will be all right. This same woman is seen at the end of the film in the same setting, and it is the adult Jackie, who has come through heaven and hell. A very interesting concept by Tucker, whose previous work has been for the BBC.
The music by Barrington Pheloung is quite mood enhancing, and is interspersed with selections by Bach, Elgar, Boccherini, Hayden and Schumann. The cello, in original parts of the soundtrack, is played by Caroline Dale, with Hilary du Pre being quoted as saying that Ms. Dale, 'achieved an extraordinary amount of 'cello acting' in catching the spirit and sound of Jackie. She has hit the nail squarely on the head.
If there is to be a major complaint about this film, it lies with the representation of Jackie's life during the last 14 years of it, after her diagnosis. Time is compressed into a matter of what seems to be mere minutes, with no thought being given to the life she led in reality as a teacher for other students and the causes she embraced. One is led to believe that except for the visits of friends and her husband, Barenboim, from Paris on weekends, that she practically led a housebound and almost solo existence. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Hilary And Jackie is a film that entreats us to enter into a world that perhaps a good many of us have envied to some degree, but would be loathe and hard pressed to withstand without the endurance of a long distance runner and the wisdom of Solomon keeping pace. Human frailties and emotions are put on the table and we are dealt a hand that wrenches our souls with what might and could have been.