(Scott Hicks, Australia, 1996)


I have a temperamental resistance to middlebrow movies, but even I would have to admit that Shine is a good middlebrow entertainment.

This biopic of pianist David Helfgott is obviously a Spielberg-type tale of personal triumph and redemption. But it works so well because it has just enough dry Aussie laconicism, a hint of life's dark, troubled side, and a very open-minded approach to an individual's unique eccentricity.

Young David (Noah Taylor) struggles to realise his artistic aspirations while he is simultaneously encouraged and tyrannised by a stern father (Armin Mueller-Stahl). The highlight of the film – a well-crafted scene – comes when David cracks up during his first important recital in London, where he has been tutored by old professor Cecil (John Gielgud).

Years of convalescence and obscurity follow. But, one day, adult David (an excellent performance from Geoffrey Rush) stumbles into a bar – seemingly just another damaged, crazed bum off the street – and starts playing the piano. This triggers the chain of events and encounters that will rekindle David's life and career.

Writer Jan Sardi cleverly shuffles the chronology of these events in ways that are always clear and expressive. But the biopic is a notoriously difficult genre: some aspects of this story – such as David's years of oblivion, and his redemptive romance with Gillian (Lynn Redgrave) – are dealt with in too sketchy a manner. And the film's bias towards a father-son melodrama at the expense of all the female characters is very evident.

If the script seems evasive at certain tender points, it is nonetheless confronting and determined when depicting David's gregarious behaviour and his screwball associational logic. For the difference between Shine and the Spielbergian feel-good model of moviemaking – and what makes it distinctly Australian – is its refusal to cure the main character of every last excess and dysfunction.

Shine is far from being the deathless masterpiece that some tout it as – the touch of director Scott Hicks is a little too simplistic and functional for such overblown praise. But, within its unpretentious limits, it is a stirring film.

MORE Hicks: Snow Falling on Cedars

© Adrian Martin August 1996

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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