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Twisted Sisters

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 15, 1999

  Movie Critic

Hilary and Jackie
Rachel Griffiths, right, and Emily Watson as the talented but confused "Hilary and Jackie." (October)

Anand Tucker
Emily Watson;
Rachel Griffiths;
James Frain;
David Morrissey;
Charles Dance
Running Time:
2 hours
Contains profanity, discussion of sex, brief nudity and discreet lovemaking
Like its stirring antecedent "Shine," "Hilary and Jackie" plumbs the cistern of family dysfunction and musical genius to profound and haunting effect.

So too, like that earlier biographical picture about Australian pianist David Helfgott, "Hilary and Jackie" draws its inspiration from real life – case the late, brilliant cellist Jacqueline du Pre. What's more, both dramas boast rock-'em, sock-'em dynamic duos in the acting department: Armin Mueller-Stahl and Geoffrey Rush as demanding father and talented son in "Shine"; Rachel Griffiths and Emily Watson as the emotionally and musically competitive siblings Hilary and Jackie du Pre.

Just as Scott Hicks's "Shine" drew complaints about the artistic license it took with Helfgott's life, so too will there be the inevitable quibbles about the history as portrayed in the new film by Anand Tucker (despite the fact that the script by Frank Cottrell Boyce was based on a recent memoir by Hilary and her brother Piers).

The film may be biographical, but it is not a biography, at least not of the gospel-truth variety. Nor should you expect such. What former documentarian Tucker's film does &3150; and does marvelously – is emphasize the highly interpretive nature of any storytelling, utilizing a "Rashomon"-like construction whose shifting points of view aptly suggest the sequential movements of an orchestral piece of music.

"Hilary and Jackie" begins when the sisters are gifted little girls in 1950s England, both learning to play instruments under the fair but almost too firm hand of their mother (Celia Imrie). Initially, young flutist Hilary (played with poise by child actress Keely Flanders) is the family hotshot, winning most of the contests. After a stern warning from Mom about separating the preternaturally close girls unless the younger one's musicianship shapes up, little Jackie (the chubby-cheeked Auriol Evans) soon surpasses her older sister, as she struggles to master an instrument that is bigger than she is. Although they were frequently neck and neck in the musical horse race as children, by their teens Jackie is the clear winner, with her exuberantly physical performances on the cello garnering international accolades.

In short order, Jackie throws herself into the vortex of big-time classical music celebrity, while Hilary meets, falls in love with and marries cute conductor Kiffer Finzi (David Morrissey), settling down for the quiet country life of raising kids and performing in the occasional regional concert.

Here's where the real motor of the movie kicks in. Jackie, whose prime motivation has always seemed to be envy of what her sister already has, soon covets her big sis's rustic lifestyle – including husband Kiffer. Never mind that she has her own home and a more famous husband, the Argentine pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim (James Frain). What makes the urbane Jackie's sudden desire for domesticity all the odder is that Hilary actually consents to share Kiffer in a brief menage a trois. Of course, the act of sisterly selflessness eventually becomes untenable, even to shore up Jackie's crumbling emotional and physical health.

The real triumph of Tucker's film is the way it transforms a beast (Watson's bizarre, selfish and affected Jackie) into an object of pity and compassion. This is accomplished with an inventive structure that begins with a conventional childhood narrative, then in adulthood jumps to a vision of the world according to Hilary, before backtracking several years and retelling the period we just saw from Jackie's perspective. Eventually, the story catches up with itself in a coda that synthesizes the two faceted versions in a denouement that reunites estranged friends and family members.

The unexpected seduction of the audience's sympathy will leave many in tears as the credits roll – not only those who recognize the paradoxical bond that holds sisters together while keeping them apart, but those who are willing to accept that the burdens life dumps on ordinary folks are sometimes just as heavy as those that saddle the extraordinary who walk among us for a little while.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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