Sisterly love

For critics (and for audience members who enjoy thinking too much), there are movie devices and there are movie effects. Movie devices--happy endings, sad endings, emotion-wracked confessions, harrowing confrontations--are those stock contraptions that filmmakers employ with varying degrees of subtlety to induce movie effects--making you laugh, making you cry, creating a suspenseful or scary mood. The more critically (or cynically, some might insist) you watch a movie, the more you find yourself out to identify cheap or easy movie devices and sidestep them--who wants to pay seven bucks to discover that moviemakers think you're an easy target? But there are bear traps--those ridiculously big, above-ground steel teeth that, say, Steven Spielberg and Oliver Stone often place; and then there are landmines--emotional explosives you know are there, but are buried and therefore not so easy to blithely skip over.

I could probably qualify for veteran's benefits after seeing Hilary and Jackie, the debut feature by British documentary filmmaker Anand Tucker about the celebrated cellist Jacqueline du Pre. I identified some of the most common devices strewn left and right over the scarred, trod-thin field of this biopic--suffering artists, degenerative disease, family rivalry, even a tear-soaked deathbed finale--but damned if they didn't explode anyway. By the end of Tucker's flawed but sometimes ingenious examination of the conflicted relationship between Jacqueline and her older sister Hilary, the movie felt fresh and resonant in spite of its overall familiarity. Credit two sources for this--the combined grace and insight of Emily Watson's and Rachel Griffiths' title performances, and a narrative construction by Anand Tucker and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce that replays the same moments through the eyes of first Hilary and then Jackie, leading us to understand why they did or said those terrible, wonderful things.

You may have to wait a good 15 minutes before Hilary and Jackie gets its hooks into you. The screenplay was based on a book by Hilary and her younger brother Piers du Pre originally titled A Genius in the Family. The first of the movie's three parts details, adequately if colorlessly, the 1950s childhoods of a young "Hils" (Keely Flanders) and "Jacks" (Auriol Evans). They live by the seaside with well-meaning if emotionless parents (Charles Dance and Celia Imrie) who at first believe that Hilary, a proficient flutist, is the family's musical great. Jacqueline is given the cello, if for no other reason than to keep her occupied, but the girl's competitiveness soon becomes apparent when she decides, after hearing adults tell her about Hilary's talent, "You must be proud," to dedicate her waking hours to the cello. She soon gallops ahead of Hilary in local, national, and international competitions and is, by her teenage years, considered to be England's greatest musical prodigy of the century.

The film's childhood segment details an almost idyllic sisterly relationship of mutual support and even clairvoyance (Hilary and Jackie are so close, each is able to say what the other is thinking at almost any given time). Frankly, perhaps because of the rather opaque performances of Flanders and Evans as the girlhood leads, you don't get a good sense of where the darker threads of their relationship were woven in, even though it's pretty clear some major envy and egotism must have begun here. As the film progresses, we see that the adult Hilary (Griffiths) finally drops her musical career to raise chickens and a brood of children in the country with a loving husband (David Morrissey), while an increasingly temperamental and unstable Jackie (Watson) catapults to international solo stardom and lands in a tempestuous marriage to an Argentinean pianist (James Frain). Her luck reverses when she is diagnosed with nerve-destroying multiple sclerosis at 28, quashing her career and her life prematurely. Du Pre died in 1987 at the age of 42.

Hilary and Jackie kicks into high gear when director Anand Tucker leaves the kids behind and employs visually diverse styles for the final two segments. Much of of the "Hilary" portion of the film takes place at Hilary's bucolic home, where Jacqueline, who impulsively flees her pianist husband, comes to stay and pour gasoline on the hearth. Photographed conventionally, with lots of shots of rolling green hills, forests, and candlelit country rooms, the scenes make clear that fidgety Jacqueline doesn't know what to do with herself in these serene environs. Hilary, meanwhile, accustomed to deferring to her sister because of all the career hype, chafes against making concessions on her home turf. The film becomes sort of like Ulu Grosbard's Georgia in reverse, with the younger sister the deranged but undeniable talent who comes to invade the hard-won domestic peace of her older, less talented sibling. Hilary reverts to an old role and makes a most unusual sacrifice for Jackie that results in the pair not speaking for years.

Repeating some of this, but including the story of Jacqueline's touring life and her slow descent into multiple sclerosis, is "Jackie," which Anand Tucker films as artsy set pieces of slow-motion, eerie sound effects, flamboyant camera angles, and spot-lit tableau. The sudden, overt technicality of the last segment is appropriately austere for the loneliness and the creative charge Jackie experiences on the road, as well as her mounting terror as she watches her body betray her for reasons she doesn't understand. Because she no longer has Hilary to compete with and vanquish, Jackie tries to sabotage her musical career even before MS sets in, and we suddenly understand the motives behind some of the selfish and sometimes abusive things she's done earlier in the film. It's an unusual pleasure to watch a movie that shuffles your sympathies and animosities between the two leads in the way that Hilary and Jackie does, and director Tucker's biggest achievement is impressive--a mosaic illustration of how we hurt our loved ones in ways that we don't even realize and that they often won't reveal to us. Tucker's film fills in those silences by revealing how a lifetime of unexpressed pain will collect and eventually avalanche.

But in the end, Hilary and Jackie is more traditional multi-hankie fare than pointillist emotional study. When you have two talents like Emily Watson and Rachel Griffiths, those hard-wrung tears don't feel quite as shamelessly manipulated as they are. Watson is the most fiercely, peculiarly expressive young actress out there. Just as in her remarkable film debut in Breaking the Waves, she has the ability to stare at another actor with a slightly deranged mixture of love, anger, and sadness, pause, and then deliver a smoothly emotive line in a way that rattles you. It's the pause that takes your breath away; you wonder exactly which emotion lurking in those water-blue eyes will surface. Rachel Griffiths, the lovely Job sidekick from Muriel's Wedding, has the softer, less showy role, and she imparts acres of feeling by simply glancing at the floor. Her character sums up this theme of unexpressed pain when Iris du Pre, mother of Hilary and Jackie, flashes a photo of her smiling daughters as evidence of their happy childhood. "Oh, mother," Hilary says. "People in a photo are supposed to smile."

-- Jimmy Fowler

Hilary and Jackie.
Directed by Anand Tucker. Written by Frank Cottrell Boyce, based on the book by Hilary and Piers du Pre. Starring Emily Watson, Rachel Griffiths, David Morrissey, and James Frain. Opens Friday.


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