The english cellist Jacqueline du Pré was the closest the classical music world had to a cover girl in the 1960s. Beautiful, golden-haired, she attacked her instrument with exciting physicality, producing a pure, full sound that moved audiences to swoons. The drama of her life was made for media coverage: concerts around the world, marriage to the glamorous pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim — and then, at the height of her fame, the cruel attack of multiple sclerosis, which ended her musical career, and to which she succumbed in 1987 at the age of 42.
There was, however, another Jackie — childish, demanding, emotionally unstable, and bound to her older sister, Hilary, herself an accomplished flutist who, with their brother, wrote about Jackie’s darker side in the memoir ”A Genius in the Family.” The striking artistry of Hilary and Jackie lies in its ability to convey the twining of talent and monstrous self-centeredness that is so often the hallmark of artistic brilliance, and to let both Jackies loose.
This unusual, unabashedly voluptuous biographical drama, a bravura feature debut for British TV director Anand Tucker, soars on two virtuoso performances: by the rightfully celebrated Emily Watson (”Breaking the Waves)” as Jackie, the sister who, while on tour, mails her dirty clothing home; and by the undercelebrated Rachel Griffiths (”Muriel’s Wedding”) as Hilary, the sister who finds fulfillment in a rustic domesticity.
The film is lofted on swells of music, notably portions of Edward Elgar’s elegiac Cello Concerto in E Minor, Du Pré’s signature piece. (A Du Pré recording of the Elgar is featured; other performances are by England’s Caroline Dale.)
At its subtlest level, though, Hilary and Jackie is itself a musical composition in classical sonata form — exposition, development, and tragic recapitulation. The tone of romantic yearning Tucker captures is the visual reproduction of the kind of beauty Du Pré the artist produced even while Du Pré the woman ached to be anyone but the genius in the family.