Hilary and Jackie Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1998

If you think being an ordinary person is any easier than being an extraordinary one, you're wrong. If you didn't have that cello to prop you up, you'd be nothing.

Hilary and Jackie Logo

Hilary and Jacqueline du Pré were two gifted musical sisters that grew up in England during the 1950's. Although Hilary was the first to gain recognition for her talent on the flute, Jacqueline quickly overtook her sister to become one of the most internationally renowned cellists of the 20th century. However, even with her lavish lifestyle that saw her play in sold-out concert halls around the world, Jacqueline often envied the simple life of her sister Hilary, who married and settled down on a small farm in the English countryside.

When you play, everyone loves you. When you stop, you're alone.

Unfortunately, Jacqueline's illustrious musical career was cut short at the age of 28, the year she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. As the condition worsened over the last two decades of her life, she lost the ability to play, eventually becoming a prisoner within her own body until her death in 1987. In 1997, Hilary and her brother Piers released "A Genius in the Family", a controversial memoir that shed light on the relationship between Hilary and her departed sister. "Hilary and Jackie" is the cinematic adaptation of this memoir, an emotionally-charged bio-pic spanning four decades and several countries.

If you want to be with Hilary, you'll have to learn to play as well as Hilary. If you want to play together, you've got to be as good as each other.

Rachel Griffiths

Starting in the early Fifties, we see two young girls running across a deserted beach, pretending that they are making their way through the Kalahari Desert. Life is simple for Hilary and Jacqueline, and they share an uncommon bond. However, their mother, Iris du Pré (Celia Imrie), has much higher expectations for her daughters, and she pushes the both of them to excel in music. Naturally, these expectations result in some sibling rivalry, and the emotional dynamic between the two sisters becomes fueled by jealousy and the constant need for praise.

Your sister's a remarkable girl... you must be very proud.

Emily Watson

Moving ahead into their teenage years, Jacqueline (Emily Watson of "The Boxer", who is a trained cello player in real life) blossoms into a talented cello player, using her instrument and her emphatic style to create 'music that weeps'. Showered with praise and recognition, Jacqueline embarks on a whirlwind career as a professional musician, performing in sold-out venues all over the world. She eventually ends up marrying famed pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim, and it appears that Jacqueline has truly done well for herself.

Let's get a flat together and go bonkers. We can have all the men we wanted to, I know we could.
I'm going to marry Kiffer. I love him... he loves me.
He doesn't love you... he just wants to get into your knickers.

As a startling counterpoint to her flamboyant sister, Hilary (Rachel Griffiths) ends up growing up in the shadow of Jacqueline's eminence, and eventually gives up a musical career to marry the love of her life, an affable young man named Kiffer (David Morrissey). Settling in the quiet countryside, Hilary's days are soon filled with the sounds of chickens and children, and while she is happy, she cannot help but feel envious for the accomplishments of her sister. However, all perceptions are called into question when Jacqueline shows up unexpectedly at the farm, visibly distraught and with an insatiable yearning for Hilary's ordinary life.

I want to get married.
Well, you can't marry him. You can't leave me.
I'm not leaving you. You're not even here anymore. You never will be again.
Haven't you heard? I'm giving up the cello.
Don't be silly.
I can do what I want.
You don't know anything apart from the cello.

The screenplay, which was written by Frank Cottrell Boyce (who also wrote "Welcome to Sarajevo") at the same time as the du Pré memoir, illustrates the difference between perception and the truth in the relationship of the two sisters. At the beginning of the second act, "Hilary and Jackie" is told through the eyes of Hilary, with Jacqueline being portrayed as an arrogant and self-centered ingenue. Then the film does an about-face and shows the same events from Jacqueline's perspective, with the emotional gravity and misconceptions of previous scenes being underscored. Instead of being surrounded by adoring fans and standing ovations, Jacqueline's life on tour is a lonely one, and her aptitude with the cello is more a curse, as opposed to being a precious gift.

It's silly really... I just don't want to be a cellist. Well I never asked to be a cellist, you see. It's all just a big cock-up, really. One day I was just playing and the next I was booked up for the next two years. I hate the cello, if you really want to know.

"Hilary and Jackie" is shot in a very lyrical style, a combination of dramatic and documentary-style filmmaking. This is not surprising, since director Anand Tucker was an accomplished documentary filmmaker before turning his attention to feature films. Unfortunately, the film's biographical nature is also its weakness. While the relationship between Hilary and Jacqueline is engaging in its own right, the film itself winds up being more of a travelogue than a character-driven story. By the final fade-out, it is not evident if either sister had undergone any transformation as a result of their ordeal. Furthermore, it is also unclear if the emphasis of "Hilary and Jackie" was on Hilary, Jacqueline, or the dynamic of the relationship between these two women.

Narrative issues aside, "Hilary and Jackie" is a beautifully crafted film. With the lush cinematography of David Johnson and a camera that ceaselessly glides through every scene, this film excels in the technical aspects. Despite a wayward narrative that becomes lost on more than one occasion, the opulent visuals will certainly keep you enthralled. The experience is further enhanced by the rich classical score, some of which incorporates actual live recordings of the real Jacqueline du Pré in concert.

Another two reasons why "Hilary and Jackie" manages to succeed in spite of itself are because of the standout performances by its two female leads. Watson and Griffiths share an uncommon screen presence, and carry the film exceptionally well. Watson, who made her debut in "Breaking the Waves", gives a strong performance that convincingly conveys the contradictory yearnings of her character, and she adeptly handles the transition from world-class musician to the lonely and wheelchair-bound woman Jacqueline became. Watson also turns in an excellent performance, handling the complexities of her character with distinction and grace.

Overall, "Hilary and Jackie" is a fascinating and mesmerizing film, even after taking into account its long-winded and meandering script. With two excellent Oscar-worthy performances, extravagant cinematography, and some outstanding direction, this is one film that should not be overlooked. If you enjoyed "Shine", a film about another musical prodigy, you'll certainly enjoy this one.

Images courtesy of October Films. All rights reserved.

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