SHINE (Australia, 1995) *** 1/2
"Shine" was the sensation at last year's Sundance Festival. You can see (and hear) why. It is not a film-by-the-numbers concoction of special effects or robotic characters, made for everybody's major target audience of teens to 25-year olds, plus a few old geezers in their thirties. It is about real people, doubly so as this is a true, un-fancied up story. While the facts are special, they are not as unusual as some may think. Artists can and do crack under severe pressures, the way Australian pianist David Helfgott did.
The movie is excellent, although it leaves some questions unanswered about certain times, places and people's backgrounds. The Helfgotts live in Perth, I believe, but various press items say Adelaide, Melbourne or "a city." There are other unclarities.
Peter Helfgott, the head (most emphatically) of the family, is a Polish Jew who had emigrated to Australia before World War II. (I have seen mentions of "a German Jews," perhaps because he speaks the language). His late father seems to have been very authoritarian. Peter's passion was music but this was opposed. A violin he had bought when young was smashed by his father.
Peter is a gravely traumatized individual. All or most of his relatives were killed in the Holocaust. The man is a pauper, not merely a low-income earner. He dwells in a miserable house, almost a shack, with his wife and kids.
The apple of his eye is young David who, as a child, is something of a piano prodigy. His teacher is his father. Peter is imperious,bullying, tyrannical, intolerant yet at the same time terribly possessive. "No one will love you as I" is his leitmotif to David at all stages of his son's life. It is clear that Monster Dad is not quite all there.Which gene went wrong in him is unknown. So is information of how and when Peter acquired the musical training that allows him to teach his son so ably.
When a professional teacher wants to instruct the so-promising David, Peter's "I can't afford to pay for lessons" is true statement but also an alibi. He just won't let go of his son.Eventually he relents. Later he grudgingly accepts having the local Jewish community lend a hand to the boy. Visiting Jewish-American super-star violinist Isaac Stern offers to get David to America, a wonderful scholarship and invitation are extended Peter, perhaps the Holocaust destroyed so many families, wants the boy to stay with him. He refuses to let him go to the U.S.A.
In spite of his horrid, mad background, when David places second in an all-Australia competition he becomes a young star nationally. Finally breaking away from Dad, he ignores his maledictions and opposition and accepts a scholarship at London's Royal Academy of Music.
His first public concert in England is a triumph. But it is immediately followed by a mental collapse, then a long malady that lasts for several years. Eventually comes a cure, incomplete but sufficient to return David to the world of performing brilliantly in public. He will tour North America in March 1997.
Except for some lack of fact-giving "Shine" shines in every way. The performances could not be better. In small parts, beautifully done, are: the great, amazing, versatile Sir John Gielgud ( David's teacher in London) who will be 93 in April 1997 (Aries); Lynn Redgrave (the astrologer who marries David and helps his recovery), a youngster of 54 (in March 1997), sweet and lovely ; the charmingly named Googie Withers (David's good, understanding friend) who, though not a major star, enhanced more than a dozen, mostly British films from the late 1930s to the mid-1950s. She resurfaced in two fine features in 1985 and 1994.
The youngsters who play David as a child and as an adolescent are perfectly cast. Geoffrey Rush (David as an adult), an admired stage actor who has also been in films, is extraordinary. His constant, endlessly repeated, jabbered comments to himself and to others, uttered with a happy, friendly face, are a unique tour-de-force which copies the real David. The only approximate comparisons I can make are to the manic David Thewlis in "Naked" and to several agitated characters by James Woods.
Peter is played by the former East German actor Armin Mueller-Stahl. He has been in American films since 1989's "The Music Box." You may remember him in "Avalon," "Kafka," "Night on Earth" (the New York cabby) and "The Last Good Time." While David is the center of the movie, Peter's portrayal is the most cryptic and perhaps complex.
Eloquent bits of business are numerous. Like Peter, a non-believer, visiting a rabbi to make arrangements for David and donning a skullcap --perhaps for the first time ever. Or else he once had faith but the Holocaust may have caused him to lose it. As he starts on the corridor leading to the exit, he removes the cap. Like Peter again,in his pitiful yard, simply glances at a barbed wire.The reference to death camps is instantaneous.
"Shine" gives a new meaning to "family movie," as do the current "Mother" and especially the French "Thieves."