Powerful Hilary and Jackie finds drama in the real-life story of prodigal sisters

Big music! Big acting! Big drama! All of these can be found in Hilary and Jackie, a generally beautiful biography about the lives of famous musicians you’ve probably never heard of. Directed by newcomer Anand Tucker, Hilary and Jackie depicts the turbulent relationship between the famous English cellist Jacqueline du Pre and her sister Hilary.

Hilary and Jackie descends from a line of biographies about musicians, such as Amadeus and Shine, in which competitive pressures and musical passion ultimately result in madness and destruction. The difference is that Hilary and Jackie is above all a portrait of two sisters who happen to be extremely talented rivals who nonetheless love each other deeply. Most of the things they do to each other stem from their intense need for love and acceptance, giving Hilary and Jackie the strange feeling of being simultaneously a small, intimate character piece and a grand operatic work.

The real Jacqueline du Pre was a child prodigy on the cello, as was her sister Hilary on the flute. As they grew up, however, Jacqueline became more and more of a musical celebrity while Hilary pursued the more conventional goals of being a wife and mother. Eventually, Jacqueline was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and died at the age of 42 in 1987. Her life story was printed in a book written by her brother and sister, A Genius in the Family, on which the screenplay for Hilary and Jackie was based. This closeness helps to account for some of the incredibly personal details recounted in the film, which only members of the du Pre family could have known, allowing for an intense level of insight into the lives of the sisters (although it is not surprising that in the film, Jackie is presented as disturbed and jealous while Hilary is almost unblemished).

Jackie is played by Emily Watson, previously seen in Breaking the Waves and The Boxer. The role of Jackie must have been an actress’s dream come true: emotionally, it ranges from quiet jealousy to total looniness, culminating in that award-winning favorite, the death from a lingering and painful malady. Watson makes the most of this rich part, somehow managing to never quite go over the top. Rachel Griffiths as Hilary is an Australian actress from such movies as Muriel’s Wedding (in which she was the one who ended up in the wheelchair). In this film, however, she plays her part as the dependable, sane sister with a gravity and strength that allows her to keep pace with Watson’s wildness. Both actresses are very strong, and both have been nominated for Academy Awards, Watson for Best Actress and Griffiths for Best Supporting Actress.

Tucker gives Hilary and Jackie an unusual structure. The first quarter or so tells the story of the sisters’ childhoods and their early entrance into the world of music. The second quarter is told from Hilary’s perspective, showing how she made the transition from music to marriage and of her increasing difficulties of dealing with Jackie. I was ready to dismiss the movie at the end of this section, because the dramatic situations seemed simple and a little boring.

But then, the third section of the movie covers the same events as the second, this time from Jackie’s perspective. It might sound like it’s a matter of the director trying to show off (e.g. Brian de Palma or Quentin Tarantino), but it’s not. By presenting concurrent events from each of the sisters’ perspectives, director Tucker allows us to deepen our understanding of each sister’s actions and motivations, without any of the jokiness associated with jumps in perspective. By the time we’ve seen everything through both sisters’ eyes, their stories appear fuller and much more tragic, especially because we understand more about them.

The film’s large-scale drama is matched by bold, beautiful cinematography and fine music, both of which accentuate the film’s emotional and dramatic statements extremely well. However, while the unusual structure of the film allows for some powerful emotional manipulation, the screenplay and direction occasionally remain rather flat and uninspired. The film aspires to flights of brilliance and often succeeds, but often just glides along on inertia as well. Nonetheless, if you like movies that aren’t afraid to make a bold statement, this is one of the better ones of the year, squeezing high drama from a relatively simple and non-epic story thanks to fine acting and powerful classical music.

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