Cyberlizard goes to the movies

Hilary and Jackie (1999)

Starring Emily Watson, Rachel Griffiths, David Morrisey, Jamie Frain, Charles Dance, Celia Imrie

Jacqueline du Pré was the foremost cellist of her generation who soared to fame in the sixties, only to have her meteoric career tragically cut short by multiple sclerosis that led to her death in 1987 at the age of just 42. Hilary and Jackie is a purportedly biographical film about her life, focusing on the close relationship between her and her older sister Hilary.

The film

It is reported that the du Pré family were unhappy with the resultant film, although it claims to be based on the biographical book "A Genius in the Family" by Hilary and her brother Piers du Pré, and it's not hard to see why. The first part of the film suggests that there was some sort of sibling rivalry, albeit of a loving kind, between Hilary and Jackie, possibly encouraged by their somewhat uptight but ambitious mother. The two girls want to play together, but after a disastrous session at the BBC, their mother turns on Jackie and tells her that if they want to do so, she will have to become as good as her older sister. This triggers off a frenzy of cello practise that leads to the two girls being able to perform together at an early age, during which time we already see the spotlight shifting from Hilary (a quite reasonable flautist) to Jackie, who expresses herself flamboyantly by shaking her head and waving her bow (apparently something of a shocker in postwar, pre-Beatles Britain). Soon it's private tuition and invitations to play for Jackie, while Hilary plods along with the flute and suffers the additional trauma of a very discouraging music professor who reduces her to a nervous wreck.

The controversy in the film comes when the girls reach marriageable age. Hilary (Rachel Griffiths) is ardently pursued by young conductor Kiffer Finzi (David Morrisey), a man who is quite shockingly outgoing but still observes some conventions and certainly doesn't want bohemian sexuality intruding on his marital bliss. In a midnight conversation Jackie (Emily Watson) ridicules Hilary's aim to be happily settled and suggests that the two sisters get a flat together and have as many men as they want. The suggestion seems to be that (a) Jackie is sexually rampant, and/or (b) so dependent upon her sister that she can't live without her. Hilary goes ahead and marries, upon which Jackie seems to throw herself into a relationship with Daniel Barenboim (Jamie Frain), who went on to fame as an international pianist and conductor. She announces her conversion to Judaism (Barenboim is Jewish and wishes to live in Israel), only to turn up some while later at Kiffer and Hilary's cottage in the country, apparently suffering from some sort of mental turmoil. This is one of the pivotal scenes in the film, as Jackie then asks Hilary to let her have sex with Kiffer (even though by this time she is married and her sister and brother-in-law have two children). From this point in the film the focus seems to be on Jackie as much the rock-n-roll-lifestyle-tormented-genius as the brilliant artist, and Emily Watson (admittedly brilliant, and who deservedly won an Oscar nomination) plays the great cellist much as Val Kilmer played Jim Morrison of the Doors, ie a somewhat excessive character. I never saw du Pré in concert, but from watching her teaching sessions on TV in the late seventies/early eighties I must admit I found it hard to square the calm woman on the small screen in the wheelchair with the somewhat hysterical, overwrought girl in the film who has tantrums and seems to be carrying a lot of childhood baggage.

Eventually tragedy strikes when Jackie finds she has MS, a disease dreaded by all but possibly more so by musicians. We witness her rapid deterioration and decline from optimism into bleak pessimism, a slide which does have some poignant moments in the film, especially when Jackie has been confined to a wheelchair. The final twist of the knife comes when she is hardly able to answer the telephone and suspects that Danny is having an affair over in France. Some might view this scene as a sort of poetic or even divine judgement for her early sexual misadventures, although it would be cruel to suggest it given the already horrible suffering she has to endure. The last shot we see of her in this life is in her sister's arms as Hilary tries to get her to drink and soothes her with childhood memories. She dies on the night of the great storms in the UK in 1987.

At nearly two hours this is not an over long film and is quite watchable. Apart from the two leads, Celia Imre is excellent as the girl's mother and Charles Dance ever dependable as their father. David Morrisey is excellent as the robust Kiffer who dares to fight against Jackie, even as he finally consents to sleep with her, whereas Jamie Frain's Barenboim is a somewhat enigmatic, almost secretive figure. Full marks to Watson and Griffiths, incidentally, as both had to learn to play their instruments to concert standard. Nevertheless there are one or two criticisms. As somebody remarked, the film seems unable to forget its arthouse origins and thus we have a somewhat pretentious scene on the beach with young Hilary and Jackie, Jackie talking to a stranger who later turns out to be her adult self. This scene both starts and ends the film. Also the film after the childhood scenes is divided into two parts, "Hilary" and "Jackie" (surprise, surprise), telling the story from the two different perspectives. Depending on your point of view this is quite clever or just irritating. I thought it clever in theory but found the flashbacks occasionally confusing. There is a certain amount of frank sexuality and quite a bit of bad language which would probably rule this out as a children's film, although families with older teenagers might find it worthwhile, not least for the discussion on the penalties for fame and sexual incontinence it might raise. Most importantly, however, is the question that it raised in my mind: Is this actually true? I would suggest reading one of the biographies (either Hilary's and Piers' or Carol Easton's) together with the film to form a balanced judgement.

For alternative views of this film, visit the following sites:

InsideOutMovies - a rather critical but fair review.
Yorkshire Film Society
Guardian/Observer Film Unlimited
CNN Europe: Movies
Kevin Hood's very fair review.

For an interesting consideration of Carol Easton's biography of Jacqueline du Pré and indeed of the cellist herself by a classical aficionado, David Wright, who heard and saw her play, click here.

Click here for a brief potted biography of Jacqueline du Pré, especially in relation to Edgar's Cello Concerto, the piece for which she is probably best remembered.

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