Hilary and Jackie (United Kingdom, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The story of celebrated cellist Jacqueline du Pré is too good not to have been made into a movie. However, the most gratifying thing about director Anand Tucker's Hilary and Jackie is that it not only does it tell the tale, but does it so a uniquely compelling fashion. This is as rich and powerful a film as has been released in 1998. Every subject that it touches on, from the love/rivalry relationship of sisters to the line between genius and madness to the price of celebrity, is handled flawlessly. Add the best female performance of the year, a glorious soundtrack, and effective cinematography, and Hilary and Jackie stands as a towering achievement for Tucker.

Jaqueline du Pré (Emily Watson) was one of classical music's brightest stars during the 1960s and early '70s. After making her professional debut as a teenager, she became one of the most in-demand cellists of her time, and was known not only for her peerless technique, but for the passion she exhibited by swaying to the music as she played. In 1973, while at the height of her popularity, Jacqueline was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. The disease put an end to her career, and, following a 15 year battle, her life. Fans of classical music may recognize that the version of the Elgar Cello Concerto (Jacqueline's "signature piece") used in this film is an actual recording of one of her performances.

As the title implies, this film isn't just about the life of Jacqueline du Pré, but about her tempestuous relationship with her sister, Hilary (Rachel Griffiths). When they were both children, Hilary, a flutist, was considered the greater talent. She was invited to play with orchestras and make special appearances. Through practice and hard work, however, Jackie elevated herself to her sister's level, then beyond. As an adult, Hilary all but gave up the flute in favor of marriage and a family, while Jacqueline chose fame. The price was a desperate yearning to have the stability and happiness that Hilary possessed.

Hilary and Jackie is one of the most complex motion picture biographies of recent years. The relationship between the two sisters is perfectly developed. As children, they were inseparable soul-mates. When they were teen-agers, Hilary came to resent Jackie's success as her own musical aspirations floundered. Then, once they entered adulthood, the tables were turned. Jacqueline, teetering on the brink of depression and madness, obsessively craved the happiness her sister had achieved. She wanted the normalcy that her talent denied her. Then, when MS ended her career and left her alone and dependent, she had to cope with the loss of her defining characteristic, powerlessness, and death. The relationship between sisters is never simple (as movies would often have us believe). Tucker and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce (from a book by Hilary and Piers du Pré) understand this, and have taken great pains to display all of the shades and variables of sisterhood in this film.

As Jackie, Emily Watson gives a stunning performance. Watson, who earned an Oscar nomination for her courageous work in Breaking the Waves, is even better here, capturing every nuance of a character trapped between genius and madness, whose playing defines her existence. ("When you play, everyone loves you. When you stop, you're alone.") Watson, who devoted months to preparing for this part, becomes Jackie. When she plays the cello, her fingers are in the right place, and she effectively mimics her character's unconventional body movements. Even more remarkable, however, is her ability to produce this depth of emotion without ever straying over the top.

Despite being in Watson's shadow, Rachel Griffiths acquits herself nicely. In fact, the relationship between the two sisters works because Griffiths is able to rise to Watson's level, and, on those occasions when the film focuses on Hilary, Griffiths' performance holds our attention. In supporting roles, David Morrissey has a delightful turn as Kiffer Finzi, Hilary's loving and supportive husband. James Frain is Daniel Barenboim, Jackie's conductor spouse. Auriol Evans is Jackie as a child (her mannerisms provide a nice link to Watson's), Keeley Flanders is Hilary as a child, and Charles Dance and Celia Imrie play the sisters' parents.

Another aspect that gives Hilary and Jackie more substance than the traditional biographical picture is the story structure. The movie is essentially told in three acts. The first, which covers the sisters' childhood, is presented from the omniscient standpoint. The second, labeled "Hilary" is (not surprisingly) told from Hilary's point-of-view. The third, "Jackie," reflects Jackie's perspective. For the most part, events are presented in chronological order, although, at the interface between the second and third segments, twenty minutes of episodes are presented a second time to illustrate how Hilary and Jackie's interpretations of them differs. Sometimes, the changes are subtle, but, on other occasions, they're quite dramatic. There is also a dream-like bookend at the beach where a young Hilary and Jackie confront a mysterious woman. Although slightly contrived, it provides a satisfying moment of emotional catharsis.

Stylistically, the film is a success. The music is used extraordinarily effectively, especially when the Elgar Concerto is played over the closing sequence. It's a poignant piece that could easily have been composed just for that scene. When Jackie has her MS-induced breakdown, Tucker's approach reflects the scene from Shine when David Helfgott suffered his collapse. Images and sounds are distorted to present things from inside Jackie's head. In general, sound is crucial to the film's effectiveness - not just music, but simple background noise. Tucker rejects traditional, static storytelling, but the director's flourishes enhance the narrative rather than distracting the viewer from it. Hilary and Jackie tells a heartbreaking tale of vividly-developed characters. It is a triumph, and one of 1998's few "don't miss" motion pictures.

Hilary and Jackie (United Kingdom, 1998)

Ranked #2 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 1998
Run Time: 2:00
U.S. Release Date: 1998-12-30
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations, Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1