It's even worse than 'Shine'; Music: 'Hilary and Jackie' cheapens the memory of the great cellist Jacqueline du Pre; Fine Arts

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Movies about classical music make me doubt film as a serious art form.

Don't get me wrong. I love movies -- I'd rather see a so-so movie than hear a so-so concert any day of the week. Some great movies are etched in my memories the way certain great performances by favorite musicians are. I'll no sooner forget Tarkovsky's "Solaris" or Scorsese's "Raging Bull" than Richter's "Appassionata" or Kissin's "Funeral March" Sonata.

But while classical musicians can be a great subject for a documentary filmmaker -- one need look no further than Bruno Monsaingeon's recent "Richter: The Enigma" -- they are bad news for feature film directors.

Three years ago we had "Shine," which invented a fictional musical genius from the shards of the life of David Helfgott, who was actually an emotionally challenged cocktail pianist. More recently, we have had "Hilary and Jackie," Anand Tucker's feature about the du Pre sisters -- the flutist Hilary and the great cellist Jacqueline du Pre (1945-87), whose career was tragically cut short before she was 28 by the multiple sclerosis that killed her 14 years later.

What these movies have in common is the theme of "tortured genius," the notion that extraordinary abilities transform a human being into a kind of freak. Now genius or prodigiousness is a freakish occurrence. But that possession of such gifts automatically makes one miserable is as absurd as the notion that they would make one happy -- though I'd prefer to take my chances with the latter option.

"Hilary and Jackie," which, after much reluctance, I finally saw Sunday night, is awful -- more awful, actually, than "Shine."

But every bad movie about classical music is bad in its own way. "Shine" was actually pretty good cornball; it was "Rocky" at the keyboard. It was only bad if you took it seriously. And that only happened when the classical-music industry trotted out the sad sack who was the real David Helfgott to capitalize on the film's success.

"Hilary and Jackie" is bad in several different ways but just as difficult to take seriously.

By accepting the jealous, bitter agenda of du Pre's sister, Hilary, the movie takes a narrow view of a great and generous artist. All fiction -- even "true-life stories" -- is composed of lies. Such fictions were less jarring where "Shine" was concerned, because the life the film dealt with was unfamiliar even to those who closely follow classical music.

Du Pre's life is another case. She was not only the greatest cellist of her generation, she was also one of the most positive and liberating forces for young women in the 1960s. She was a woman who loved to play music for other people, and she was unafraid to take chances, whether musically or personally. In place of this Jackie, the film has given us a startled deer, frozen in fear by the approaching headlights of life and destined to self-destruct.

And unlike "Shine," which -- perhaps because of its simplistic rise-and-fall-and-rise narrative -- at least had the virtue of lucidity, "Hilary and Jackie" is opaque. It tries to tell the story from both sisters' point of view and simply ends up as repetitive and somewhat confusing. The sense of du Pre's greatness -- though compressed into only six years, her career as a cellist was matched only by that of Mstislav Rostropovich -- is reduced to that of a little girl lost, as we see Jackie (played by Emily Watson) trudging through airports, her cello trailing behind her, like Linus with his blanket.

The movie plays it cheap in other ways, too. It includes a bit of mystical nonsense -- the du Pre infants get a visitation from the future -- of the sort one sees on TV's "Touched by an Angel." And it treats the horrors of dying from multiple sclerosis with almost pornographic intensity.

Although it's been playing in art cinema houses like the Charles, "Hilary and Jackie" is actually closer to the kind of fare offered by daytime soaps.

It's bad. So much worse than "Shine," in fact, that unlike that film, you can't take it seriously enough to get really angry.

Herzog with opera company

In releasing its schedule for 1999-2000, the Baltimore Opera Company has announced what sounds like the most impressive season in the company's modern history.

The biggest news is that Werner Herzog, the great German director of such landmark films as "Fitzcarraldo" and "Aguirre, the Wrath of God," will stage Richard Wagner's "Tannhauser" for the BOC in March.

When Herzog turned up two seasons ago to stage Carlos Gomes' "Il Guarany" in Washington, his presence suggested that the Washington Opera had reached a new level. The same inference might be made about Herzog's appearance here.

Performances of "Tannhauser" will take place March 16, 18, 19, 22, 24 and 26.

The rest of the BOC's season is as follows:

Mozart's "Don Giovanni," Oct. 21, 23, 24, 27, 29 and 31.

Verdi's "La Traviata," Nov. 13, 14, 17, 18, 19 and 21.

Rossini's "La Cenerentola," Dec. 4, 5, 8, 9, 10 and 12.

Puccini's "La Boheme," April 29 and 30, May 3, 4, 5, and 7.

Tickets are available by calling the box office at 410-727-6000 or visiting the company's Web site at http: //www.baltimoreopera.com. Single ticket prices range from $25-$112.

Pub Date: 3/09/99

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