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Dustin Putman

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Hilary and Jackie (1998)
3 Stars

Directed by Anaud Tucker
Cast: Emily Watson, Rachel Griffiths, James Frain, David Morrissey, Charles Dance, Auriol Evans, Keely Flanders, Celia Imrie, Rupert Penry-Jones, Bill Paterson.
1998 – 121 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for profanity and sex).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, December 15, 1998.

One of the most powerful images in Anaud Tucker's "Hilary and Jackie," is of Jackie de Pre (Emily Watson) sitting in her living room all alone, shaking violently, a sufferer of multiple sclerosis. Heartbreaking moments like this, mixed with observant scenes involving cello playing, is what caused, "Hilary and Jackie," to be such a natural and human drama.

The film, based on the autobiography by Hilary de Pre, entitled, A Genius in the Family, spans four decades, from the 1950's to the 1980's, as it follows two close-knit sisters, Hilary (Rachel Griffiths) and Jackie, who, during childhood, were masterful at playing the flute and cello, and won many competitions. As they grew up, however, they took different paths. Hilary, realizing how inferior she was to her younger sister at playing, gave up the flute and married Daniel Barenboim (James Frain), moving to the secluded countryside of England. Meanwhile, Jackie, who knows she cannot live without her sister, goes into a deep depression, nearly giving up the cello, and just as she began performing again, was ultimately diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

"Hilary and Jackie," follows a rather basic, ordinary storyline, and although some of it could be telegraphed in advance, other sections of the picture genuinely surprised me. Also throwing conventional storytelling to the winds, a la Quentin Tarantino, the film follows Hilary through a large portion of her life, and then circles back, following Jackie's point-of-view during the same time frame. Although there was no real purpose to choose such a style, the film, I think, grew because of this. By showing Hilary's perspective, and then Jackie's, there are many revelations in the characters, and we are able to understand more deeply what Jackie, confused and lonely, was going through.

After giving one of the breakthrough performances of the decade in 1996's brilliant, "Breaking the Waves," Emily Watson has created another thorough, exact character, and yet Jackie is quite different from her "Waves" character, Bess. When she grows more and more helpless from the disease, the film became occasionally too heart-rending to sit through, but director Anaud Tucker should be applauded for not looking away from multiple sclerosis. He courageously chose, instead, to look the illness straight in its face, in all of its tragedy and sadness. Rachel Griffiths, as Hilary, is every bit the perfect match for Watson, and one particular scene involving her during the conclusion was particularly moving.

The other performances in the film were not quite as good, or memorable, because they were all mostly underwritten. This flaw did not much affect my feelings for the film, however, because this is a story about two sisters, not about their various husbands and family, although we do get a look into their childhoods. Played superbly as children by Keely Flanders and Auriol Evans, the early scenes were especially effective because of the sense we got, in which, as Jackie surpassed Hilary in her talent of an instrument, her parents sort of pushed Hilary to the side, as if she wasn't as important.

It isn't really giving anything away to say that Jackie du Pre, unfortunately, died at the age of 42 in 1987, due to her illness. "Hilary and Jackie," is a glorious, seemingly accurate tribute to this obvious talent, who has widely been considered the greatest musical prodigy of the 20th-century. The fact that her life was unfairly cut short seems like a crime, since she was an overall good person who happened to have a lot of internal and emotional conflicts throughout her life. The final scene, set at an unidentified, dreamy beach, and involving the two sisters as children, returned to the set-up of the opening sequence, and not only was the cinematography by David Johnson gorgeous to look at, but the implications of what is said in the scene was a thought-provoking and poignant way to conclude the ode to Jackie du Pre's life.

©1998 by Dustin Putman

Dustin Putman