On paper, "Hilary and Jackie" can't miss. The true story of legendary cello player Jacqueline du Pre, an international sensation during the 1960s and 1970s, is rife with the stuff of great cinema: genius, struggle, sibling rivalry and finally a heroic battle with a fatal disease.
But against these odds and a gimme-my-Oscar performance by Emily Watson, "Hilary and Jackie" does miss. In fact, part of the problem with the movie is Watson herself, who as Jackie du Pre can't seem to shake the daffy-yet-ethereal persona she became famous for in "Breaking the Waves."
Then there is the issue of emphasis. Based on a memoir written by Jackie's sister Hilary (played by Rachel Griffiths), "Hilary and Jackie" understandably focuses on the two women's relationship. And, early on at least, the film captures with acute feeling the love, competition and deep connection between the two girls. But once they come into adulthood, a certain amount of sensationalism takes over, as "Hilary and Jackie" overplays the sisters' psychic bond and a curious romantic triangle between Hilary, Jackie and Hilary's husband, Kiffer (David Morrissey).
Told in two parts, each from one sister's point of view, "Hilary and Jackie" begins in the 1950s, when the two children were being encouraged in music by their mother. At first it was Hilary who showed the promise, as a prodigy flutist; indeed it was to tip the scales of attention that Jackie began to practice her cello maniacally, soon outstripping her sister in awards and kudos. She began her rise to stardom as a slightly bewildered teen; suddenly, the only contact between Jackie and her family was the occasional phone call or bundle of laundry mailed home.
These emblematic scenes nicely convey the odd dynamic of having someone famous in the family, and later we see it from the point of view of Jackie, who receives her laundry from home and proceeds to smell it with agonized longing.
In fact, "Hilary and Jackie" gets so much right that reservations seem niggling. But they're important. For one thing, the power of du Pre's playing never comes through, perhaps because her recordings aren't used here. Without those transporting performances, Watson's depiction of her famously expressive style (much grimacing and throwing of hair) takes over, to the music's detriment. This isn't helped by director Anand Tucker's camera, which circles the performances with dizzying ferocity.
One can't watch "Hilary and Jackie" without thinking of "Shine," another movie about another troubled genius, and detecting a whiff of the bandwagon. In that movie, it was the "Rach 3" that held the magical power for the musician; here it's a famous Stradivarius cello that is given to Jackie with the words, "It will give you the world, but you must give it yourself."
By taking such a safe, romanticized approach, "Hilary and Jackie" doesn't begin to do justice to its brilliant, difficult and utterly unique subject.
'Hilary and Jackie'
Starring Emily Watson, Rachel Griffiths, David Morrissey, James Frain
Directed by Anand Tucker
Released by October Films
Rated R (language and sexuality)
Running time 121 minutes
Sun score * * 1/2
Pub Date: 1/22/99