Films

A life out of key

Music and madness in moving counterpoint

Brian D. Johnson December 9 1996
Films

A life out of key

Music and madness in moving counterpoint

Brian D. Johnson December 9 1996

A life out of key

Films

Music and madness in moving counterpoint

SHINE

Directed by Scott Hicks

Every so often, an independent film by some unknown talent sneaks up on Hollywood and beats it at its own game. Shine is this year’s model, a small movie with a huge heart that delivers the kind of inspirational experience the major studios would love to manufacture, if they could only find the formula. In cynical terms, it could be hailed (or dismissed) as this year’s My Left Foot—an uplifting film from abroad based on the true story of an artist who triumphs over paralyzing adversity. It is an obvious Oscar contender. And its popular appeal has been evident since the Toronto International Film Festival in September, where both audiences and critics voted it their favorite film. Reducing Shine to another feel-good success story, however, diminishes its seductive eccentricity, and its uncommon emotional power.

Shine is about music and madness, repression and redemption. It is inspired by the life of Australian pianist David Helfgott, a child prodigy who was felled by a nervous breakdown in his early 20s when on the brink of international success, then was rediscovered after a decade of obscurity.

The movie opens in the early 1980s, with a scene of the lost and bewildered David (Ge-

offrey Rush) stumbling out of the driving rain into a piano bar. Through flashbacks, the narrative revisits his Australian childhood in the 1950s. Armin Mueller-Stahl plays the boy’s tyrannical father, an embittered Polish-German immigrant who lost most of his family to the Holocaust. Denied his own chance to pursue a musical career, he pushes his son to near-impossible goals on the piano, yet jealously thwarts his career opportunities.

The adolescent David—played with disarming wit by the sweetly gawky Noah Taylor (The Year My Voice Broke)—is finally allowed to refine his talents at the Royal College of Music in London. There, tutored by a legendary professor (John Gielgud), he decides to tackle Rachmaninoff’s awesomely difficult Piano Concerto No. 3. “It’s a monster—tame it or it will swallow you whole!” warns Gielgud’s flamboyant character, lunging into the spirit of the drama with perhaps too much prescience.

Shifting back and forth between past and present, Shine’s Australian director, Scott Hicks, builds a contrapuntal narrative that builds to an electrifying crescendo with the Rachmaninoff performance—and David’s mental collapse. In that scene, Hicks locates the terrifying cone of silence that exists only onstage, where the artist trips past the point of no return, time stops dead and self-expression is frozen by fear.

There is a frustrating gap in Shine’s narrative, the decade-long black hole between David’s breakdown and his salvation—which is facilitated by a chance romance with an affluent Sydney astrologer (Lynn Redgrave). But the film works on its own terms, like a piece of music. As the older David—a lovably benign madman— Rush gives a virtuoso performance, his chaotic speech spilling out as a fugue of verbal ticks and stammering digressions. For a drama about the terrible dangers of artistic genius, Shine is neither terribly dangerous nor obsessively arty. But in the sunny spirit of its hero, it is art that entertains with a genial eloquence.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

Doggedly derivative

101 DALMATIANS

Directed by Stephen Herek

Among all the movies barking after the holiday box-office dollar, this is the designated top dog. It is a triumph of packaging, a film designed to make every child want to adopt a spotted puppy, or a plush toy. In 101 Dalmatians, a cackling villainess, Cruella DeVil, kidnaps a litter of pups to make a dog-fur coat. And, in its own way, Disney has done the same thing—taken a purebred animated classic, skinned it and stuffed its pelt with the live-action slapstick of a Home Alone revenge farce. It is, in fact, written and produced by John Hughes, who created Home Alone (1990). And in cross-breeding Disney’s original 101 Dalmations with his own crassly formulaic style of physical comedy, Hughes has created a mongrel— a movie that has some bite, but lacks the magic of the original.

The dogs, at least, are lovely. So are the London locations. And

Glenn Close delivers a deliciously over-thetop performance as Cruella, a fashion executive in the retailored story. Costumed in an outrageous variety of animal prints, she is a cross between Snow White’s queen and the bunny-boiling babe from Fatal Attraction. But once the chase is under way, Cruella is not given a fighting chance—she, and her two bumbling Home Alone-cloned henchmen, just become sitting ducks for scatological abuse.

Jeff Daniels and Joely Richardson, meanwhile, do earnest duty as Roger and Anita, dalmatian owners who fall in love and get pregnant at the same time as their pets. But ascribing marital romance to real dogs is incredibly cloying—and more ludicrous than with cartoon dogs. And because these dogs do not talk, the film has no real protagonists. Hughes, however, knows how to make money talk. And in that respect, his new breed of 101 Dalmations is probably spot-on.

B.D.J.