Australian pianist David Helfgott, now 49, was, by all accounts, a genius of a child prodigy. The sensitive son of an overwhelming Polish father who, having escaped the Holocaust while most of his family perished, was by turns smothering and tyrannical, Helfgott had all the makings of a brilliant career. Then a breakdown undid him in his 20s, and for years he was institutionalized, kept from his keyboard, and forgotten. How he fell apart and how he pasted enough of the shards together again to make a life that now includes music and the love of a good woman is the subject of the biographical drama Shine, a Sundance Film Festival sentimental favorite and a breakthrough for director Scott Hicks and stage actor Geoffrey Rush.
”I won’t let anybody destroy this family!” ”No one can love you like me!” ”If you go [to London’s Royal College of Music], you will be punished for the rest of your life!” rails Peter Helfgott (Armin Mueller-Stahl) at his tormented son (Alex Rafalowicz as a child, Noah Taylor as a young man, Rush as an adult). The boy, in love and terror, responds by defecating in his bath — and working even harder.
Some of Shine‘s luster comes from the artful, lyrical way Hicks has constructed this elegant piece, fitting the flow of the story into a concerto form (there are ”movements,” changes of tempo, etc.), with the character of David at the center as soloist. Much of it has to do with the powerful performances of Mueller-Stahl (Avalon), young Australian actor Taylor, and Rush in their heartbreaking roles. (John Gielgud appears, dapper, as a Royal College teacher who works with David on Rachmaninoff’s massive Piano Concerto No. 3; Lynn Redgrave is sprightly but essentially unknowable as David’s wife.)
But much of Shine‘s power also comes from the raw shock of the story (the pain of the destructive love relationship in which father and son are locked, nakedly on display, is awful) and what can be seen as the ”redemptive” message inherent in Helfgott’s resurrection from the institutionalized dead. David’s good fortune to find a place in the world to shine — mental imbalances, eccentricities, artistic gifts, charm and all — is (as interpreted by Rush with impressive fearlessness) a wonderful thing. But it is not an Everyman story of triumph over adversity, or love conquering all; it’s one man’s good grace, or maybe just the luck of the draw, that Helfgott’s damage did not defeat him. Shine beams with warmth, sensitivity, and fine taste, but some of that illumination is the work of our own reflector lamps. B+