Director: Scott Hicks
Stars: Geoffrey Rush, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Justin Braine
Plot: David Helfgott, under the guidance of his father, becomes an accomplished pianist as a child, but suffers a mental breakdown which shatters his professional career.
Geoffrey Rush’s career is predominantly made up of supporting roles. As Sir Francis Walsingham in Elizabeth (1998), Lionel Logue in The King’s Speech (2010), but perhaps most famously Barbossa in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, Rush is the dependable crutch upon which a lead character can easily rely. Every now and then however, he is cast at the top of the bill and shows just how good he can be in the spotlight. His performance in biographical drama Shine was arguably his breakthrough, even though he doesn’t have an awful lot of screen time to make an impact.
A man (Rush) runs through a rainstorm of a small town in Australia, apparently trying to find help. Despite the fact that his speech is impaired, he manages to convey to the restaurant owner that his name is David Helfgott and he is staying a local hotel. She takes him back and, although David appears to have an extensive aptitude for music that he wants to share with her, she leaves. We then jump back to David’s childhood (played by Alex Rafalowicz), where it is revealed that he had a particularly difficult time, as he was dominated by his Polish-Jewish father Peter (Mueller-Stahl), who was obsessed by teaching David the piano and had no room for failure or disobedience. David is noticed by local piano teacher Ben Rosen (Nicholas Bell), who rejects Peter’s insistence that David should be playing Rachmaninoff’s difficult 3rd Concerto, a piece that Peter has drummed into him.
As a teenager, David (Noah Taylor) wins the state musical championship and is invited to study in America by prominent violinist Isaac Stern. Despite plans being made and his father giving his blessing, David suddenly finds that Peter has changed his mind because he believes that him leaving would destroy the family. David then befriends local novelist and co-founder of the Communist Party of Australia Katherine Susannah Prichard (Googie Withers) – he loses a national musician competition but wins a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London which accepts, much to the dismay of father, but with Katherine’s encouragement. David arrives in England and enters a Concerto competition and wins by playing Rachmaninoff’s 3rd, but at the same time suffers a mental breakdown on stage which sees him admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Ten years later and with his career over, David returns to Australia but now he must try to find a resolution with his father whilst rediscovering a love for music once more.
Shine is one of those films that just cries out for an Oscar – and the Academy duly obliged, with Geoffrey Rush getting a gong for Best Actor. Strangely enough though, it would have been arguably more fitting for his teenage alter ego Noah Taylor to have won more praise for his performance, as he takes up the bulk of David’s portrayal. While Rush is no doubt terrific in conveying David’s struggle with schizoaffective disorder, it is Taylor who takes the character from adolescent right through to student – and he does this very well indeed. Mental illness is a very difficult subject to approach in a film, as both accuracy and understanding of the condition in question is required. Geoffrey Rush gets all the trailer money shots, muttering to himself with moments of clarity including a genius scene in a restaurant where he plays an amazing rendition of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee, much to the delight of the diners.
Director Scott Hicks’ excellent direction is evident in both the intense and more genteel moments. The scene that really sticks in the mind afterwards is the concert that David gives, in which he plays Rachmaninov’s 3rd to huge applause before promptly collapsing to the ground. This most significant part of the film prompts David’s mental downfall and is simply stunning. The one area in which the plot falters is in explaining the reason for David’s breakdown – is it down to his father’s brutal treatment of him (actually denied by David’s sister who saw the film) or the aspiration of attaining musical perfection for his own personal validation? The result is a gaping hole which could have been satisfied by a short monologue or a satisfying dramatic showdown with his father to find the answer – sadly we get neither. There are some great performances from the supporting cast, most notably Armin Mueller-Stahl as David’s father and the late, great Googie Withers and Lynn Redgrave.
Shine is wonderful at times, especially when combining David Helfgott’s mental strains with those of the beautiful music. Even though we are told that the film is more about how David regained his life with help from his wife Gillian instead of his decline, it would have made for a more enlightening experience had we been given the opportunity to discover his personal take on the reason behind it.