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'Shine': One Life's Sad, Sweet Symphony

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 25, 1996

"Shine," an extraordinarily touching movie from Australia, opens in a rainstorm, with a drenched stranger (Geoffrey Rush) tapping frantically against the window of a wine bar. Although the bar is closed for the night, Sylvia (Sonia Todd), the proprietor, invites the insistent man in.

The bespectacled visitor, whose name is David, is both batty and charming. He speaks in rushed, rambling sentences, hugging everyone in sight. He mumbles aphorisms about the sanctity of living, breathing creatures, and punctuates his feverish patter with infectious machine-gun giggles.

Sylvia, who is quite taken with David, drives him home. As she discovers, David, who lives in a boardinghouse, happens to be a musical genius.

This chance meeting becomes a sort of rebirth for David, who has not performed in public in 10 years. Now in his forties, he decides to break his exile. As he develops a following in this cozy little tavern, we are taken back through the odyssey that brought this haunted genius to the bar's rain-streaked window. Inspired by the real story of classical pianist David Helfgott, "Shine" re-creates that emotionally piercing story, note by memorable note.

David's story begins in the 1950s, as the young musician (played by Alex Rafalowicz), watched by his brooding father, Peter (Armin Mueller-Stahl), steps up to perform in a musical competition. But as he plays a Chopin polonaise, the piano starts to roll away from him. He stands up, following the upright's crazy course, still hammering out the tune. David doesn't win the competition, but one of the judges (Nicholas Bell), astounded at his abilities, offers to tutor the boy.

This marks the beginning of David's emotional trauma. His father, a Polish Jewish survivor of World War II, has taught him how to play from scratch. But he's suspicious of official music teachers. When David's prodigious talent prompts Isaac Stern himself to invite the young musician to study in America, Peter isn't pleased, he's outraged. The patriarch, who doesn't want to relax his grip on the boy, refuses to let him go. Clearly, there's a little jealousy in there too: Peter was denied a chance to learn the violin by his father. Now, the cycle continues. David, who can't escape his artistic calling, is devastated.

The adolescent David (now played by Noah Taylor, the star of "Flirting" and "The Year My Voice Broke") finally defies his father, leaving to study at London's Royal College of Music. Peter banishes his son forever. David tries to lose himself in obsessive study, under the brilliant tutelage of Cecil Parkes (Sir John Gielgud).

But the effect of his father's unforgiving wrath, compounded by news of an old friend's death, causes him to suffer a massive emotional breakdown from which he never completely recovers. Now a broken soul, he returns to Australia to begin a life of institutional rehabilitation and artistic retreat, until that life-changing night in the rain.

At the core of "Shine" is another of those Hollywood-style telegrams about the importance of art and individualism. David's romantic meeting with a beatific astrologer (Lynn Redgrave) whom he marries, as well as a final meeting with his estranged father, completes the movie's slightly overworked, life-affirming agenda.

But the magic of "Shine" doesn't lie in its subtext or theme so much as its collective performance. The movie does what any great musician should: It lifts an idea to the heights of ecstasy; it sells its song.

As David, all three performers are deeply affecting. Rush is particularly memorable with his frenetic, childlike sweetness. Mueller-Stahl, a splendid actor who modulates adroitly from thunderous to tender, enjoys one of his finest roles. Director Scott Hicks, who collaborated with Jan Sardi on the screenplay, has created a symphony of dramatic minor chords and major moments. His vision is beautifully augmented by cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson, whose eye has graced a number of films, including "The Navigator," "Fried Green Tomatoes" and the upcoming "Some Mother's Son." Here Simpson simply outdoes himself with exquisite images of water, hands at the keyboard and the faces of David's enrapt audiences.

Finally, there is the music of Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Mozart and Liszt soaring over the soundtrack. As we savor these classical compositions, we hear -- in some sense -- the sound of David's soul. And we may hear a little of our own as well.

Shine, at area theaters, is rated PG-13. It contains mild nudity and sexual situations.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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