directed by Scott Hicks
(Buena Vista Pictures, 1996)

Shine opens on a dark and stormy night.

Not many films could recover from that, but not many films offer viewers a protagonist like David Helfgott.

David is a real-life, award-winning Australian pianist who was driven mad either by his overbearing father or from playing Rachmaninoff. That's the one subject on which Shine is a bit vague.

By the age of 13, David already had more potential than most teens have acne. Within a few years, he was winning scholarships to prestigious international schools like London's Royal Academy of Music. But there was a price to pay for those scholarships: he had to incur the wrath of his father.

To say that David's father was overbearing is to say that the Grand Canyon is a pretty good-size hole. For years Helfgott the elder controlled David with words of love, when the only thing he loved was control.

If there's a down side to The Lion King, Shine has pegged it. Yes, men carry their fathers around inside of them. And yes, those internalized fathers often lead their sons, or drive them, to fulfill their destinies -- or self destruct.

It took three bodies and five pairs of hands to play David Helfgott on the screen: Alex Rafalowicz played David as a child, Noah Taylor as a teen and Geoffrey Rush as an adult. All three actors (plus a couple of hand doubles) turn in immaculate performances, though it's Rush who took the best actor awards, an Oscar and a Golden Globe. That's because it's Rush who created the most lasting image of David, as a kind of keel-hauled Woody Allen who talks like a machine gun with the hiccups.

Rush gets able assists from director Scott Hicks, who also wrote the story, and cinematographer Geoffrey Simpsons, who offers us a string of unforgettable images: young David pounding out the Polonaise on a frightfully tuned piano that keep rolling away from him; David's scrapbook bursting into flames, as seen in the reflections in his father's glasses; and, best of all, the hypnotic, near hallucinogenic scenes that capture David's mind-blowing performance of Rachmaninoff's 3rd.

Also in fine form is Armin Mueller-Stahl as Peter Helfgott, the social Darwinist turned antisocial Darwinist who brutalizes his son physically and emotionally because he's only the second-best pianist in Australia. Mueller-Stahl (Avalon, Kafka), who seems to have emigrated at one time or another from every country in Eastern Europe, is on familiar ground here, having distinguished himself as a Nazi war criminal in 1989's The Music Box.

Lynn Redgrave has some wonderful moments, too, as the woman who brings David back to the concert hall, if not to sanity. And then there's the sound track, which covers everything from Beethoven's Ninth to the Troggs' "With a Girl Like You." This is one of the few film scores on CD worth shelling out bucks for.

Artists love to sketch portraits of other artists. Perhaps it's their way of doing autobiography without seeming egotistical; perhaps they just feel they're guaranteed a good story about a worthy subject. In either case, Hicks has left no note unturned in his effort to bring the dark and stormy story of David Helfgott to light.

With a little luck, we'll hear a lot more from both of them.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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