Lost keys

Shine strikes a few false notes in its delicate tale of salvation

When we first see the character of middle-aged Australian David Helfgott (Geoffrey Rush) in Shine, he's standing in the driving rain and tapping at the window of a wine bar after closing time. Let inside by a sympathetic waitress, he keeps up a nonstop nonsensical patter that makes him sound like a Lewis Carroll character on speed. Returned to his rundown rooming house, David flops out on the floor--a windup toy temporarily at rest. We then flash back about 30 years to his childhood in the '50s and realize with a jolt that this stringy-haired, wild-eyed jabberer was once a piano prodigy. Shine, which continues to whirl in and out of flashback in a manner intended to be "musical," is about how David came to be what he is. It's also about his redemption.

Helfgott is a real pianist and dubs most of the piano playing in Shine. Director Scott Hicks and his screenwriter, Jan Sardi, have incorporated those elements of Helfgott's actual life that suit their purposes--his giftedness, followed by a breakdown that placed him in mental hospitals for years, and his triumphant return to the concert stage. They've also gone in for some rather heavy embroidery work.

The central piece of embroidery is the character of David's father, Peter (Armin Mueller-Stahl), who is made out to be an abusive tough-love martinet who singlehandedly sets up David's breakdown. The real Peter, by his children's account, was a sweet-tempered soul who wished only the best for his children, but it's crucial for Shine to have such a villain in order to victimize--and beatify--David.

The Old Worldly Peter fits the job description: He's a Freudian nightmare. What saves him from total ogre status is that his mania for keeping his family harnessed draws on the loss of his parents, and his wife's sisters, in the Holocaust. Emigrating from Poland to Australia shortly before the war, he is determined his own family will survive--which, in his eyes, means staying all together in Australia. When David wins a scholarship to study music in America--presented to him by no less than Isaac Stern--Peter swats it down.

As a young boy (Alex Rafalowicz) and, later, as a spindly teenager (Noah Taylor), David has the wary insularity of a kid who lives mostly inside his own head. David's paradox is the standard romantic-artist movie paradox: He's the crazy-saintly genius. The disharmony of his mind is cleared away by the harmoniousness of his art. This gawky nerd who looks like Waldo and seems balanced on the verge of derangement can still get it together to tune the planets with his playing.

This art-house romantic-genius conceit is old-hat Hollywood, but tricked up in outback duds and given a true-confessions cachet, it can seem brand new. Shine has impressed a lot of people who wouldn't give Cornell Wilde's Chopin in A Song to Remember a second thought. The characters are not all that far apart.

In most cornball Hollywood movies about great classical musicians--such as A Song to Remember; or Song of Love, with Paul Heinreid's Schumann cracking up on the podium--the musicmaking is sweet torture for its practitioners. Their agonies are supposed to be what art is all about. And so it is with Shine. When David finally works up Rachmaninoff's "Third Piano Concerto"--the piece his father always wanted him to conquer--he seems more than masterful; he seems possessed. It is at this concert that David snaps after defying Peter in order to take up a scholarship at the London College of Music. Following a long convalescence, David becomes the gibbering holy fool we glimpsed at the beginning--the man standing in the rain.

The most generous take on this material, I suppose, is that it's an allegory on the disasters of the Holocaust; the destruction of families begets the destruction of families. Peter survives but in a sense is destroyed, and so, for a time, is David. But Hicks is after something even more elemental: He wants to show us how love can vanquish darkness.

The love here is David's passion for music; later it is the love of a woman (Lynn Redgrave) who charts David's stars and becomes his soulmate--and his wife. Standing in for the dark forces are David's father and the anonymous hospital workers who give David electroshock and discourage him from playing the piano. It's when he takes up the piano again--tapping out "Flight of the Bumblebee" to an amazed audience at the wine bar--that David is resurrected. He may be a holy fool, but propped up by his loved ones' tender ministrations, through his playing he fights his way back to a form of sanity.

The people who care for David treat him like a kind of adorable pet--part infant, part wizard. Hicks plays up the adult David's infantilism by giving us long cascading sequences with David bouncing high in the air backed by Vivaldi or jumping naked into waves and bounding like an overgrown tyke. We're supposed to regard this childlike stuff as a protective device--a way for David to seal himself off from the horrors of the adult world and play out the childhood he never enjoyed. But the childishness is also meant to have metaphorical weight; it represents the wonderment in him that allows for his genius.

Either way, there's something a bit condescending in this view of David: It turns his suffering and redemption into a species of child's play. His art and his suffering are reduced to a kind of quirky fabled quaintness--much as Glenn Gould's was in that overrated art-house rave of a few years back, Thirty-two Short Pieces About Glenn Gould.

It's significant that the reasons for David's breakdown are laid at his father's feet--even though the split between the valiant introvert that David was and the screw-loose jabberer he becomes is so decisive that some sort of neurological explanation is probably a lot closer to the truth. But physiology doesn't play as well as Freud in these romances. And so David's condition and treatment are made fuzzy throughout. So is his recovery into music. He doesn't even really need to practice. None of those boring scales and arpeggios for us; that might put a damper on the "mystery" of it all. David's genius, which as a boy appeared to arrive complete, returns again fully formed.

Hicks has a rather middlebrow take on David's genius. The pieces we hear David pound out are mostly grand-scale show stoppers, such as the Rachmaninoff, or tricky finger exercises, such as "The Flight of the Bumblebee." The real Helfgott, on the soundtrack, is impressively dexterous in his renditions, but he isn't given much chance to play softly and lyrically--just a few swabs of Chopin here and there. But people who think great piano playing is fancy-fingered mile-a-minute stuff will get the message: This guy's a genius. (By this standard, so was Liberace.)

There are some impressive performances in Shine. All three Davids are superb, and they match up. Geoffrey Rush, celebrated in Australia for his stage work, gives a tricky, propulsive rendition of David's manic joyousness. (He also bears an uncanny resemblance to James Woods.) Nicholas Bell is remarkably good as David's first piano tutor. John Gielgud, as David's tutor in London, is imperious and large souled; he's the Good Father to Peter's Bad Father. Googie Withers, as the elderly woman who befriends David in Australia, is a plush matron whose passing represents the film's most delicately sad moment. Lynn Redgrave makes her character's dawning, bewildered love for David seem like a revelation.

Performers such as these help tone up the proceedings. They root the movie in human feeling even when the filmmakers are trying to snow us. But snow may be what audiences want from Shine. The audience that once cooed over the romantic malaise in Five Easy Pieces may have found a sunny '90s substitute. The gaga uplift in Shine knocks the malaise right out of your head--along with just about everything else.

Shine. Geoffrey Rush, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Googie Withers, Lynn Redgrave, John Gielgud, Nicholas Bell. Directed by Scott Hicks. Written by Jan Sardi. Opens November 22.

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