Hilary and Jackie


Director Anand Tucker should probably be given credit for refusing to give us a romanticized version of the life of a great musician, in this case the English cellist Jacqueline DuPré, but what he's left us is something less than worthy of her as an artist. Working from a script by Frank Cottrell Boyce, who built it on the book by Jacqueline's sister and brother, he's taken her from life as a child in the shadow of her older sister Hilary, also a precocious musician -- a flutist -- to what might be called her total eclipse of Hilary, extending even to demanding (and receiving) the right to sleep with Hilary's husband.

The film doesn't end there, of course; Jackie was struck in the bloom of her career, before she was thirty, by a multiple sclerosis that quickly ravaged her body and killed her in agony at forty-two. The film begins with the charm of her childhood, carries us through the ecstasy of her career, the horror of her illness, and ends with the peace of her death. And it does not shy from showing what those who live with performers have long known: with rare exceptions they are very high maintenance indeed, and Jackie was not the exception.

And that is both the success and the failure of the film. What we see of Jackie as an adult (Emily Watson) is a singularly unappetizing personality locked to what we are told is an extraordinary musical talent. It's the personality that is most manifest in the film. As she intrudes herself into the lives of her sister's family we are given glimpses of the madness that keeps undercutting her own life. She has married the pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim but thinks nothing of abandoning him for the more giving -- more forgiving -- arms of her sister and her husband.

When it comes to the music, and her career, the film stumbles badly. It is embarrassingly obvious that Watson has no feel for how one plays the cello. She saws away madly, woefully out of sync with the (dubbed) music, barely bothering to match even what strings the notes are played on. Watching her play, one would think that great cellists make great music by means of extravagant head tossings and flailing bows. The young girl, perhaps ten years old, who plays her as a child, is obviously a much better cellist than Watson.

And there's even more to complain about: Somewhere in the middle of the film the British Watson develops what appears to be a kind of mittel-Scandinavian accent, that comes out of nowhere and then never leaves. You might call it the Jessye Norman, or diva, syndrome, but we haven't been prepared for it and it's obnoxiously obtrusive.

Having said all that, there is still much to admire in the film. Rachel Griffiths, as Hilary, has a difficult role to play -- bypassed performer, unexpected and not always willing nurturer, good wife and mother -- and carries it off very well. David Morrissey, as Kiffer, Hilary's husband, also gives a performance with flair and an appreciation for the strange relationship he's confronted with. James Frain, as Barenboim, is hardly visible, barely sketched in.

Tucker has structured the film in four parts: Part one, childhood, then (an interesting choice): Part two, Hillary; Part three, Jackie; Part four, Jackie's illness and death. Interestingly it works, at least as a means of getting away from the early film tradition of romanticizing everything to do with a musician or composer. The problem is that he simply cannot make us feel strongly enough -- emotionally, as his audience -- about DuPré's life and career, that we are swept away in the storm of music and madness and death. It is the fatal flaw in the film.