Of all the wounds, the ones inflicted by the parents are the longest to heal -- if they do at all.
"Shine," then, is not really the story of a pianist, though Michael Helfgott (Geoffrey Rush) is a great one. It's a story of a hero, a boy who was so instructed in his own worthlessness by a tyrannical dad that it all but deconstructed his personality. That he plays brilliantly today is, in my view, much less impressive than that he plays at all.
Helfgott was born into a furiously musical family of European Jews that had emigrated to Australia after the war, after papa had miraculously survived the Holocaust. Intelligent, domineering, implacable, Daddy (the steely Armin Mueller-Stahl) pushes the boy relentlessly. This is what today would clearly be called child abuse, though in those days the concept hardly existed.
Thus, "Shine" is hard to take in its particulars. No one can enjoy seeing the will of an angry father directed so viciously at his powerless and physically frail son. Under the pressure, David retreats into weirdness, his personality somehow cramping up until it is almost dysfunctional.
He speaks in the clatter of a broken teletype machine, he smokes incessantly, he goes unkempt and unwashed until he's almost unsocialized. He becomes a furtive, odd figure, dashing from shadow to shadow in a pall of smoke, literally seeming insane to anyone who doesn't bother to listen to the gibberish he speaks, which under its strained surface displays an impressive, if other-worldly, coherence.
What saves him is in a sense even more tragic: his talent.
It's clear that all through his life, David's anguish was relieved by sympathetic teachers and friends, who recognized his gift and went to great pains to nourish it. A teacher gave him free lessons and a respite from the intensity of the household; a sympathetic older woman arranged for him to travel to London and study at a great musical institution. There, a professor (John Gielgud) really encourages him to develop further.
But I kept thinking: Yes, great. But what about all the kids who lack that talent and have no place to turn and whose lives attract nobody? They just keep sinking. Where do they end up? Well, drive through Jessup for one answer.
But that unhappy thought aside, back in David's life, it seems his father, in some hideous dance of Oedipal fury, can be doing nothing else than trying to kill him. No performance is good enough, no practice regimen rigorous enough, no competition a success unless he wins.
It's too much.
For every three steps forward the young man is allowed, his father drives him four steps backward, and he ends up in a padded room, known as a kind of failure, because he's the grown version of the boy who won all those competitions when he was young.
The movie then watches David finally recover his life. It isn't easy, but it's certainly inspirational. Somehow David survives in the asylum for a number of years, and when it becomes clear how harmless he is, he is let free. He makes the first tentative steps himself, sitting down at a piano in a bar.
He's so bizarre that everyone thinks it's a joke, but then his mad chattering stops, he hunches over the keyboard, squinting through the smoke, and his fingers begin to dance along the blacks and whites -- and it's not in the voice of a madman but in the voice of a god.
Now Helfgott is back concertizing, has even married and become prosperous.
His triumph is powerful, but you always feel sadness in it, because he's the one that got away.
Starring Geoffrey Rush and Armin Mueller-Stahl
Directed by Scott Hicks
Released by Fine Line
Rated PG-13 (extremely intense)
Pub Date: 12/25/96