“Magnificent fingers”, says Cecil Parkes, as he shows adolescent David Helgoff Rachmaninov ‘s sculptured fingers, serving as inspiration for the piano-playing prodigy, in the movie Shine (Released November 22, 1996). Parkes assists Helgoff hit the right note on playing Rachmaninov No.3 while the young musical genius is on a scholarship at the Royal College in London. They say the No.3 is feared for its inherent challenges in perfecting, something Helgoff’s father Peter, a German Jewish immigrant in Australia, insists his son perfects. The pressure of life gets to Helgoff and he is taken to the psychiatric institution. His upbringing under the expectations of his father makes him need to please and, in the end, disappoints. But despite these darker moments of life, I observe that Helgoff seems to learn the “joy of living” for the first time in his life.

The adult Helgoff (Geoffrey Rush), who’s been through the institution, is forcing his way into a closed restaurant, where he has been playing for the everyday crowds. The film comes back to that point after it goes back in time. We are shown David’s youth, under the strict, performance-based tutelage of Peter (Armin Muller-Stahl), his father, who has a story of his own, which seems to be the point that intends to make the viewer understand why Peter drives his son to perform. But, far from expectant audiences for a fine piano recital, Helgoff enjoys his post-institutional life paying familiar tunes for pub-goers.

The young David is played by two actors. Noah Taylor plays the adolescent David getting more of the role and many more times the lines and characterization than the younger version.

Geoffrey Rush who has been pivotal in the news over the role seems to get less space in the film, in an unconventional performance, an unconventionality which occasionally got laughs in corners of the cinema I was at.

David meets an astrologer, falls in love with her, and proposes marriage. She seems to become the catalyst for David making another life for himself.

Shine appears to me to be a good story well told. It is based on the life of Helgoff, done with his cooperation.

There are subtle touches – involving religion for instance, whatever it may mean, but I suspect the film shows that Christianity and Judaism isn’t the thing for David. The Christian faith may be narrowly represented, or it is just something touched on that he had a brief encounter with. The film does not go into Helgoff’s faith. By the end, there is a note of humanity and grace, yet is this Christian-like grace or humanistic, or esoteric, one doesn’t really know by watching. Maybe this is left to the audience. David has an uneasy relationship with his father, where there isn’t a connection, one wonders what subtext there is here, if any. A young David is seen reading his Hebrew Bible in bed while his father is arguing with his mother over David. Is there some subtle allusion here of a disconnection to God that is juxtaposed by the scene, but that is resolved more by the end of the film? We don’t know. There is one profanity in the film, rather mild, a scene of domestic abuse, and a little nudity.

My personal view is that Shine has not a dull moment, an understated and affecting drama about life. It is not a minute too long.

By Peter Veugelaers

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