“Shine” (1996) – 4/5 Stars


A great piece of music — and this is especially true of works for piano — conveys a mood or sometimes many moods; it is incredibly affective. While listening you might feel comfortable and at ease at one point and then suddenly chaotic and unsettled at another. This is certainly true of Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 3 in D minor, the challenging piece that “Shine” main character David Helfgott aspires to master. The piece plays a pivotal role in Helfgott’s story and as such, this film based on him brilliantly reflects its beauty and turbulence.

“Shine” is not a typical biopic in this way: there are no scenes written or dragged out solely to open your tear ducts. If that happens at all, it’s purely incidental. The only thing that’s truly reminiscent of a standard biopic is the first half of the film telling the story of Helfgott’s childhood and rocky relationship with his father.

The beginning is chronological as one would expect, moving logically from scene to scene, showing Helfgott’s talents and his father’s refusal to let him become his own person. Armin Mueller-Stahl is excellent as the father. He manages to take what we first associate as merely stubborn, stern and demanding and make us really understand that it’s not black and white. Though he beats David on two occasions, he doesn’t simply become the “abusive father” you get in many biopics: he is clearly struggling with David’s success and and blind to the fact that he’s become possessive and is living vicariously through him. He might indeed be unfairly manipulative, but we clearly see the world view (Holocaust survivor immigrated to Australia) behind it.

When Helfgott finally escapes to London to learn at the Royal School of Music, attempts Rachmaninoff for a recital and suffers a breakdown at the conclusion of the piece, suddenly the film becomes a series of clips: scenes that appear to be in order but lack clear objective and purpose with exception of David’s piano skills returning bit by bit.

This recital/Helfgott’s breakdown scene is the best in the movie. It’s the first act climax that takes the story out of childhood and into David’s struggle to become himself again as seen through the incredible Geoffrey Rush. The Rachmaninoff starts off easy, comforting and grows in intensity. Suddenly there’s great suspense to the film and we see David sweating profusely, cut-ins of his father listening to a recording and then silence and blurred camera-work. In the moment, director Scott Hicks’ work here might feel over-dramatic, but as the story continues and we never fully get an explanation of what happened (such as why Helfgott needed shock treatments) it becomes emblematic of the struggle Helfgott went through.

The end feels disjointed and its pacing frantic. The expectation is that David will make this miraculous comeback and in truth he does, it’s just not with the surge of a full string orchestra playing in the background — it’s with the subtlety of Liszt, Rimsky-Korsakov, Schumann or Chopin. It’s a bit devoid of feeling or satisfaction but it’s justified by the way Jan Sardi has “composed” the film. The story is happy being focused on the upbringing and less so with Helfgott’s rehab despite Rush’s Raymond Babbitt-quality performance. The lack of a cookie-cutter emotional climax and crying and hugging scenes will rub some average viewers the wrong way, but “Shine” deserves a good deal of admiration.

4/5 Stars

“Shine” (1996)
Directed by: Scott Hicks
Written by: Jan Sardi, Scott Hicks
Starring: Geoffrey Rush, Armin Mueller-Stahl


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