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Hilary & Jackie

Directed by Anand Tucker

Cast: Emily Watson, Rachel Griffiths, James Frain, David Morrissey, Charles Dance, Celia Imrie.

This film, and the book upon which it is based, has already caused a furore which looks set to rival the Ted Hughes/Silvia Plath saga that has raged for nearly the last forty years. A Genius in the Family, by celebrated cellist Jacqueline du Pre’s sister and brother, Hilary and Piers, seems to be essentially an exercise in sibling rivalry which comes over smelling of sour grapes, with Hilary’s attempt to blame her more talented sister, and her success, for her own unfulfilled potential reeking more of revenge than merely setting the record straight. Hilary du Pre’s daughter (Jacqueline’s niece), has already denounced the book and film as travesties, and stopped talking to her parents, claiming that rather than Jacqueline seducing Hilary’s uninterested husband (with Hilary’s consent), and jeopardising her parents’ marriage, her father had numerous other affairs, with Jacqueline just another of his conquests. Hilary had a large input to this film, collaborating with screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce (note even the change of title), so you can guess what to expect: much washing of dirty linen in public, with Hilary’s coming out much cleaner and whiter than Jacqueline’s.




The thing is, from a purely cinematic point of view, divorced from the fact that it purports to be based on fact, this film has much to recommend it. Emily Watson is riveting as Jackie, providing further evidence, after her exceptional performance in Breaking The Waves, that she is one of the most talented and versatile young actresses around. After opening with the sisters’ childhood and adolescent years, the film then employs a split narrative, giving us the story first from Hilary’s point of view, then from Jackie’s. However, this device is deceptive, a wasted opportunity, since even in the part dedicated to her, Jackie comes over as a game-playing exhibitionist. To be fair, we do get a sense of the loneliness of touring as a soloist, which eventually made Jackie grow to hate the cello, and her gift, and a life she didn’t choose. (She also, paradoxically, loves the music for its own sake - it’s all she knows how to do - and there is a marvellous scene where, in the middle of rehearsing a Beethoven trio with her conductor/pianist husband, they spontaneously break into the riff from The Kinks’ ‘You Really Got Me’.) The film is also reasonably sympathetic about the bewilderment she felt at the onset of her multiple sclerosis, which initially left her feeling tired all the time, wondering if she was going mad. Rarely are the hugely devastating psychological implications of serious long-term physical illness taken into account, least of all by the medical profession, although ultimately here we get the feeling that Jackie would have reacted unfavourably to any perceived adversity. She arrives at her sister and brother-in-law’s remote farmhouse and, craving affection or simply raising the stakes in the ongoing one-up-womanship she indulges in with Hilary, announces she wants to sleep with her husband. So, classic triangular psychosexual mind (and body) games ensue. Was she off her head because she was struggling to cope with illness, or because genius is madness, or because she was pushed too hard? Or was she just off her head? Rather than these issues being left open and ambivalent, we are given to understand, and invited to conclude, that she was a spoiled brat, an accident waiting to happen, who expected everyone and everything to be sacrificed on the altar of her prodigious talent. Once diagnosed, she is strangely elated: she finally understands what was wrong with her. But even then, she behaves badly, turning from celebrity musician into celebrity invalid. On the whole, Jacqueline is portrayed as a mischievous, playful child who grew into a selfish, wilful adult, thriving on attention-seeking and scene-stealing.
It is, unfortunately, unlikely that this controversy will be resolved as heartbreakingly, dramatically and satisfyingly - or at least have a radically new slant put upon it - as the Hughes/Plath one was by the publication of Hughes’ dazzling Birthday Letters in 1998, a few months before his death, a collection of poems about his relationship with Plath which he had been incubating ever since her suicide, during which time he served as every literate feminist’s favourite hate figure. Du Pre is not around to vindicate herself, after all, and it is difficult to see how she can do so posthumously. But there is another story to be told about her, or another way of telling it, hopefully by a more disinterested and objective party, if such an animal exists.
So, definitely worth a look, but don't believe everything you see.

First published in Film Ireland









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