In “Shine,” director Scott Hicks and writer Jan Sardi unfold an unconventional biopic about how a brilliant young pianist is driven to the edge of madness by his monstrously protective father and, as an adult, finds unexpected redemption thanks to an astonishingly understandingwoman. Top-notch performances, including luminous contributions from Lynn Redgrave and John Gielgud and a powerful turn by Armin Mueller-Stahl, plus a strong, emotional narrative drive, should propel this offbeater into arthouse theaters, and word of mouth should be positive. Australian-British co-production world-preems at the Sundance fest.
Hicks and Sardi have tackled tricky material here: Their Australian protagonist, David Helfgott, is very much alive and, in fact, has a growing rep as an unconventional concert pianist in parts of Europe. His extraordinary life is intelligently charted here, and the three actors who play him at different stages are all exceptional. Comparisons with Jane Campion’s “An Angel at My Table” immediately spring to mind.
Pic opens dramatically with the deranged, manically voluble David, played as an adult by Geoffrey Rush, stumbling into a restaurant during a violent rainstorm and befriending a waitress (Sonia Todd). Flashbacks depict David as a boy (Alex Rafalowicz) in the ’50s, already a child prodigy, and the pride and joy of his demanding father, Peter Helfgott (Mueller-Stahl), a Polish Jew whose family was wiped out in the Holocaust.
Like the most ambitious stage parent, Peter drives his son to achieve greatness as a pianist, but is too proud, and too poor, to give him the tuition he clearly needs until persuaded to place him in the hands of the first of four mentors, music teacher Ben Rosen (Nicholas Bell).
Traditionalist Peter distrusts Rosen because he’s unmarried and therefore lacks a family life; though he obviously adores his son, the father’s stiff-necked, rigid authoritarianism gradually alienates and eventually terrifies the sensitive boy. When David wins a local competition and is awarded his prize by no less than Isaac Stern, he receives an offer to study in America, which his father promptly vetoes.
As an increasingly eccentric teenager, now played by Noah Taylor, David is befriended by an elderly writer, Katharine Prichard (Googie Withers, delightful). With her encouragement, he wins a scholarship to study at the London College of Music; again, his father refuses to allow him to leave Australia. This time, David defies him.
Under the tutelage of Professor Cecil Parkes (a lovely performance from 91 -year-old Gielgud), David blossoms and is able to perform a supremely difficult concerto by Rachmaninoff. But, at the moment of his triumph, he collapses onstage and, rejected by his father, spends 15 years in a psychiatric hospital, undergoing shock treatment and unable to play his beloved piano.
The last act of this extraordinary bio intros Gillian (Redgrave), a middle-aged astrologer and divorcee who meets David by chance and eventually marries him, giving him the support and encouragement he needs to resume his concert career.
Casting of the three actors playing David has been most skillfully accomplished so that the character convincingly grows and matures as the film expands. Taylor essays the difficult transitional teenage period with rare skill and humor, while Rush is quite remarkable as the adult, at times barely rational , David. Redgrave, though her part is comparatively small, makes a terrific impression as the good-hearted woman who offers the distraught genius a chance at redemption.
On the film’s intricate and superbly produced soundtrack, the real-life Helfgott plays the piano for his screen counterparts. Securing the musician’s cooperation was obviously crucial to Jane Scott’s accomplished production, which is also distinguished by Geoffrey Simpson’s fine camerawork and Pip Karmel’s editing, the latter skillfully shaping a wealth of material into a fast-paced, compelling narrative.
Hicks, directing his third feature, far exceeds his work on the teen romance “Freedom” (1981) and kidpic “Sebastian and the Sparrow” (1988). “Shine” is mature, intelligent filmmaking that stands an excellent chance of appealing to arthouse audiences the world over.