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Based on the true story of Australian pianist David Helfgott, this delightful movie charts the traumatic early years through adulthood. Telling the story in flashback we see David as a child prodigy and as he grows up while his patriarchal father abuses him and his siblings with the memory of his childhood in Europe and the loss of his family in the concentration camps. David finally breaks away from his father and goes away to study overseas, he later suffers a breakdown and returns to Australia and a life in an institution. Many years later he is released and through several twists of fate (in reality even more unlikely than film portrays) he starts playing a piano in a bar before finally returning to the concert hall. Written by
"Shine" purports to tell the story of David Helfgott (Geoffrey Rush, who plays the adult Helfgott), a promising pianist who overcame mental illness, with the help of his wife, and returned to performing.
The 1996 film is actually a fictionalized version of Helfgott's life - but even had it not been based on a true story, it remains a powerful, intriguing film.
David is the child of German émigrés who now live in Australia. His father Peter (Armin Mueller-Stahl) is a self-taught pianist who teaches David his same love of piano and classical music. There is love there, but as portrayed in the movie, Peter is a rigid man who gives his son mixed signals. He drives his son to succeed as a pianist, teaching him that winning is everything, and yet, when David has opportunities that would take him away from the family, Peter won't permit it. The reason for this is that Peter and his wife lost relatives in the Holocaust. Peter is also given to physical abuse toward David when he loses his temper.
David finally gets away from him and attends the Royal Conservatory in London, where, with the help of his teacher (John Gielgud), he wins an important competition but then suffers a severe nervous breakdown. The rest of the movie deals with the road back, which leads him home to Australia and to his wife, Gillian. Gillian is actually his second wife, though the first marriage isn't mentioned in the film.
The dominant performances belong to Rush and Mueller-Stahl. Rush does a brilliant job of showing us the likable but stuttering David who speaks rapidly and repetitively, expressing himself through music. Mueller-Stahl as the tortured Peter is fabulous, a man who is both monstrous and pitiable. In a small role, John Gielgud of course makes a fine impression as an elderly teacher, a wonderful pianist himself, who believes in David's talent.
The best scene is David playing Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto #3 - Helfgott's own recording of the piece is used - and the aftermath. What I missed in this film is music - there was a lot of talk about David's promise, but until the Rachmaninoff not much playing.
Helfgott's work today has been deeply criticized for being - well, lousy. A review in The New York Times of one of his concerts is horrible. The reviewer, however, mentions that Helfgott occasionally showed vestiges of excellent technique. I think it's safe to assume that his playing nowadays is more erratic than it was in his earlier years. There are several examples of Helfgott's playing in the movie: "La Campanella," "Hungarian Rhapsody No 2 In C Sharp Minor," "Flight of the Bumble Bee," Rachmaninoff's "Prelude In C Sharp Minor, Opus 3, No. 2," the previously mentioned Rachmaninoff 3, and Liszt's "Sospiro," and it is all quite stunning. Rush does the fingerings himself. One of the comments also claims that Helfgott's wife has Helfgott perform on no medication so that he'll seem crazy - it's common for performers on medication for mental problems to have to cycle off of it before performing. I don't think the commenter has any idea what Helfgot is like on his medication - certainly in the film, he acts strangely.
"Shine" is highly recommended for its fantastic performances, beautiful music, and its inspiring story.
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