Lament in an Unresolved Key

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The film does not quite know what to do with Hilary Du Pre's gift of her husband's sexual services to her sister Jacqueline. Yet that's the big revelation in Hilary and her brother Piers' memoir of life with the dangerously gifted cellist, the scandalous bit that has stuck in everyone's craw.

So there the affair inevitably is, right at the center of Hilary and Jackie, its dramatic turning point, if this ill-considered film--which never finds a persuasive point of view on its subjects--can be said to have one. On the other hand, Hilary apparently wants us to understand that it was not for her a big or terribly traumatic deal. Once she accepted, at a comparatively young age, that as a flutist she could not rival her sibling's gifts as a cellist, she (along with everyone else in the family) became her sister's enabler, patiently enduring her capricious demands and careless indifferences as the inescapable taxes imposed by vast talent on those who feel obliged to serve it.

The movie, therefore, makes not much more of Jackie's unusual sexual requirements (and her relatives' bland acquiescence in them) than it does of the fact that she sends her dirty laundry home from Moscow for her mother to wash. Genius, you see, must be accommodated on many levels. This is because the romantic view of the creative life has long since taught us that prodigious talent is always delicately balanced, always in danger of paying a tragic price for its high-strung ways, always in need of indulgence.

Hilary and Jackie certainly suggests that the multiple sclerosis that struck down its heroine so young and imposed on her 14 years of anguish before she died was such a price. And since that end is known to us before we enter the theater, it becomes, in some measure, a justification for her sister's comparatively modest sacrifice. What's a little spouse-sharing if it can bring a few minutes--oh, all right, 16 months--of happiness to a tormented, foredoomed soul?

More, perhaps, than this movie wants to let on. Or, perhaps, dares to let on, given its source. Frank Cottrell Boyce's script insists that the sisters' wrangles were few and quickly subsumed by the near mystic bond they shared. He and the director, Anand Tucker--not to mention the marketing department--want us to understand this as a love story. But to do that they have to sanctify Hilary's passivity without acknowledging its aggressiveness. That has the unintended consequence of stupefying her and giving Rachel Griffiths an almost impossible role to play. Since Jackie's husband, the potentially litigious Daniel Barenboim (played with boyish inconsequence by James Frain), did not cooperate with this enterprise, that leaves all the emotional energy to Emily Watson's Jackie, who feverishly fills the screen, if not our hearts, with a sort of relentless brattiness--the genius as implacably spoiled child. Inevitably, our sympathy turns to impatience, and one escapes Hilary and Jackie as from a neurotically closed room, desperate for objectivity's sunlight, irony's fresh breeze.