"I was born fragile, father said. I was just born that way. He said I was a nervous baby. Just born like that."
- David Helfgott
In the opening scenes of "Shine", when we first meet the middle-aged David Helfgott (played by acclaimed Australian stage actor Geoffrey Rush), babbling to himself incessantly and wandering in the rain, he is in a state of transition. Behind him is the emotionally-isolated existence as a child piano prodigy whose emotional turmoil led to a nervous breakdown and a series of stays in various mental institutions. Ahead of him is his eventual reconnection with the world around him, guided by both love and his virtuoso talent that has been long abandoned.
A few bad habits can mean the difference between winning and losing.
As the story unfolds, we first see David's childhood (played by Alex Rafalowicz) in the Fifties, living under his domineering father, Peter Helfgott (Armin Mueller-Stahl), in a suburban Melbourne house surrounded by barb wire. Peter is a Holocaust survivor, having seen his family destroyed at the hands of the Nazis. He rules the family with a stern demeanor, suffocating them with his genuine, yet pathological love. Peter is obsessed with winning, and the need to keep his family together. This philosophy is imparted on the young David, and nothing short of winning satisfies his embittered father.
He's not going to America! I'm not going to let anyone destroy
Under the guidance of piano teacher Ben Rosen (Nicholas Bell), David's skill is refined, winning him several competitions. In a national championship, he is offered a scholarship by violin master Isaac Stern to study in the United States. However, unwilling to loosen the grip on his son, Peter forbids David from going.
He's just a boy Mr. Rosen... he still wets his bed.
After this missed opportunity, Rosen is replaced by an old Russian woman, who continues to encourage the young David (now played by Noah Taylor), and a second opportunity arises-- a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London. Once again, his father forbids him to go, but in his first show of independence, David leaves the Helfgott home, and his father severs all relations with him.
In London, David is mentored by Cecil Parkes (John Gielgud) and learns to play Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto, one of the most difficult piano pieces to play, even for a master. David plays this piece perfectly in concert, but suffers an emotional breakdown as a result.
I know life is cruel, but... but music... music will always be your friend... everything else will let you down in the end. Everything. Believe me... everything.
We then catch up with David ten years later and he is a shattered man, spending his days of stagnancy in a mental institution, his talent unused, and his name forgotten. It is a pitiful existence. One rainy night, having wandered from his halfway house in Perth, he comes upon a restaurant, and expresses himself on the unused piano against the back wall of the restaurant, playing a stirring rendition of "The Flight of the Bumblebee". Impressed by his skill and the reaction of the restaurant patrons, the owner of the restaurant hires him to play three nights a week. Word of the master piano player spreads across Australia, and soon David finds himself on the stage of a recital hall once again. And along the way, he also finds true love, Gillian (Lynn Redgrave), an astrologer who inspires him to greatness once again.
"Shine" was one of the must-see films of 1996 and caused a bidding war at the Sundance Festival between Miramax Films and New Line Features (New Line eventually got the distribution rights), and upon viewing, it is apparent why this film caused such a stir. It is a heartfelt narrative full of emotionally-purgative moments as David attempts to break free of the influences of his father and find his own path.
Because, in this world, only the fit survive... the weak are crushed like insects.
His father, who has seen hardship and cruelty in his life, remains distanced from those around him, leading an isolationist life. "Only the strong survive" is his mantra, and all his energies are directed to make sure that David wins, regardless of the cost. David accepts this and under his father's influence, wants to learn the 'Rach 3'. Ben Rosen advises against teaching the young David this piece since he has not felt the passion that the piece unleashes. When David finally does master the 'Rach 3', he is overwhelmed. Because of his sheltered childhood, he is unprepared for such turmoil and he collapses on stage.
When David does play again, many years later, he rejects the hollow philosophy of his father (literally saying farewell to him in a surrealistic scene) and begins a new path, embracing the support and affinity of those around him. His playing is no longer mechanical-- it is full of purpose and passion, and David is better-equipped to cope. He truly does shine.
First-time director Scott Hicks first became intrigued by the life of David Helfgott by a newspaper story published during David's restaurant days. With the cooperation of David and Gillian Helfgott (it is actually David playing the piano in many of the scenes), he has choreographed a beautiful film full of lovingly-rendered scenes bursting at the seams with the ubiquitous classical soundtrack. Hicks makes use of a wide range of film-making techniques to augment the emotional resonance of the vignettes, from the disturbing interactions between father and son, to David's mechanical performance of the 'Rach 3'.
If there is one aspect of "Shine" to criticize, it would be the ending. The film's resolution seems incomplete, since it is not apparent that David has actually come to a sense of closure concerning his father. Though David is triumphantly receiving a standing ovation in a public concert in the closing moments of "Shine", it is unclear if he actually comprehends the significance of the moment and if he has finally stepped out from his father's shadow. If the surrealistic scene with Peter Helfgott had been placed here, then perhaps the resolution would have been more definitive. But unfortunately, the last scene wraps up a little too quickly with David and Gillian standing before Peter's tombstone just before the closing credits roll, which made me ask myself, "Is that it?" But alas, it is merely a minor flaw in a generally flawless film.
The story of David Helfgott is an all-too common one. It documents the struggle to heal following a painful failure, and the smothering love and overzealous plans of the misguided parent at odds with the dreams and ambitions of the child. It is deservedly labeled one of the best of 1996 because It does what it says it does-- shine.