Shine (Australia, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Shine is a deceptively simple title for an amazingly powerful motion picture. Based on the life story of Australian pianist David Helfgott, director Scott Hicks' (Sebastian and the Sparrow) film touches on themes as diverse as the nature of genius, the triumph over adversity, and the destructive power of love. And, while there are few obvious similarities between this film and My Left Foot, there is an undeniable kinship, if only in the way both portray the extreme courage of an individual.

Long before its American theatrical debut, Shine had already attained the status as one of 1996's few "must see" films. At Sundance, where it was among the hottest properties, the war for distribution rights exploded into a public confrontation between Harvey Weinstein of Miramax and Bob Shaye of New Line (Weinstein accused Shaye of "stealing" the picture from him). The movie has also earned 9 Australian Film Institute (AFI) Awards, including those for Best Film, Best Actor (Geoffrey Rush), and Best Supporting Actor (Armin Mueller-Stahl).

Shine has its roots in 1986, when director Scott Hicks read a newspaper story about David Helfgott, a pianist who performed a flawless classical repertoire at a Perth restaurant. Hicks' interest was piqued, and he arranged to see Helfgott in concert. For the better part of the next year, he worked to earn the man's trust with the goal of presenting his story in a motion picture. That odyssey, which is admittedly fictionalized to some degree in Jan Sardi's wonderful screenplay (Hicks is emphatic that this is not a straight biography, although it does include real people and events), became Shine, one of 1996's most stirring and inspirational tales.

To fully comprehend David Helfgott's story, it is necessary to understand his father, Peter Helfgott (powerfully portrayed by Armin Mueller-Stahl), a Polish Jew who settled in Australia after surviving Hitler's purge. He's a soul-sick man whose ongoing battle with private demons makes his personality erratic and his actions unpredictable. He lost his parents and sisters-in-law to the Holocaust, and the anguish of those losses impels him to keep his family together at all costs. When we first encounter him during the 1950s, he is still rebelling against his long-dead father's influence. Peter's drive to teach his children to play instruments is a direct reaction to his own father's dislike of music (he once smashed a violin that Peter bought).

Shine follows David's life from childhood (where he's played by Alex Rafalowicz), through adolescence (Flirting's Noah Taylor), to adulthood (respected Australian stage actor Geoffrey Rush). When we first meet him, he's performing at a school recital. There, a music teacher, Ben Rosen (Nicholas Bell), notices his obvious talent, and offers to teach him. Eventually, after winning several competitions, David is invited to study music in the United States. His father, determined not to "let anyone destroy this family", refuses to let him go. Soon after, David's talent begins to languish as his musical progress stagnates. When he receives a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London, an elderly writer friend (Googie Withers) encourages him to take the offer, whether his father objects or not. In following that advice, David sunders his relationship with Peter.

In London, he studies under the guidance of Cecil Parkes (John Gielgud, in what's easily his best feature performance in five years), attempting to reach his potential. But, on the night of his crowning glory, when he plays a perfect rendition of Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto (accepted as one of the most difficult pieces for even a master pianist), the cumulative pressure overwhelms David, and he suffers a nervous breakdown. The next time we see him, more than ten years older, he's a pathetic, jittery individual given to incoherent, babbling monologues. Public piano performances are long behind him... until he enters a small restaurant.

Love can have many faces, and Shine shows two of the most extreme. The first is Peter's obsessive, domineering love. Mueller-Stahl's performance defies us to label Peter as just another abusive father trying to live vicariously through a son. At times, Peter can be comforting and gentle, and there's no denying that his feelings for David are genuine. But there are instances when the violence of his outbreaks has cruel results. The other face of love is the healing, undemanding one, as embodied by a middle-aged astrologer named Gillian (Lynn Redgrave). She offers her strength and understanding to David, helping him to rebuild his life. The film's final scene directly contrasts Peter and Gillian's approaches, as David attempts to bring closure to one of the great, unresolved issues of his life.

Shine would not be as powerful or affecting without the tremendous performances of Noah Taylor and Geoffrey Rush, both of whom were nominated for AFI Awards (Rush won). Although the two actors worked together to perfect certain shared mannerisms, each brought a unique interpretation to the role. Taylor's version is young, energetic, and highly-strung. Rush gives us a mending David, who, while still hyperkinetic, is gradually learning to face the world rather than hide from it.

Sardi and Hicks have elected to tell the story in a non-chronological fashion. While the structure isn't as irregular as that of Pulp Fiction, the choice to loop through flashbacks then move linearly into the future gives the movie a unique dynamic. Thankfully, there is no voice-over narrative -- events are allowed to speak for themselves without the crutch of a disembodied voice adding "helpful" comments. The film makers have made few, if any, mistakes with Shine, and the manner of presentation is just one example of a perfect choice.

Shine is about building strength from weakness. Early in the film, Peter gives a "tough love" pep talk to David in which he declares, "Only the fit survive. The weak get squished like insects." This, along with the belief that "everything will let you down except music", forms the creed by which Peter lives. When David attempts to follow his father's advice, he is nearly destroyed. The inspirational aspect of Shine is that David fights his way back. He never gives up, and, ultimately, his triumph becomes ours.

The film also presents its own inimitable impression of genius, arguing that even the greatest talent needs to be nurtured, not turned loose like a weed. Through the power of Helfgott's virtuoso musical performances, Shine illustrates that there are other, more effective ways of self-expression than mere speech.

In fact, there are more themes and sub-themes here than any reasonable-length review or essay could possibly cover. This is unbelievably rich material, and I can say without reservation that Scott Hicks' work deserves the highest recognition. Shine truly does what its name says.

Shine (Australia, 1996)

Ranked #2 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 1996
Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 1996-11-22
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1