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Shine is a terrific example of how a film can be a one note symphony. Based on the story of an Australian child prodigy named David Helfgott (Noah Taylor, and later Geoffrey Rush), Shine is a story about how love can destroy, how music can save, and how love can redeem.
Begin with the domineering and controlling father, Peter Helfgott (Armin Mueller-Stahl). Peter's own story is never explicitly told. Rather, Mueller-Stahl's performance fills in the gaps in what little the screenplay reveals. Peter's own father forbade music, destroying a violin the boy had saved for; Peter repeats this story to his children so many times that they respond to it by rote. A survivor of the Holocaust, in which his parents were killed, the music that was so dear to and yet so far from Peter becomes that much more important. As young David begins to show promise, other faces -- teachers and supporters -- appear in David's life, and to his father's eyes, threaten to destroy the family. When David wins a prize and is offered training in the United Stated, Peter forbids it.
David walks a fine emotional edge. His fear of failure, and of failing, manifests itself physically. Peter's domination is total. But a prodigy cannot be kept in a closet. When, as a teen, David wins scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London, Peter again forbids it. David (Noah Taylor) goes anyway, and Peter declares him dead. It is a twisted use of the Orthodox Jewish practice of declaring family members dead if they marry outside the religion. But it sets the stage for the final meeting of the men, several years down the line.
In London, under the tutelage of Professor Parkes (Sir John Gielgud), David shows "signs of genius." Although we see that Parkes's tutoring method is almost as domineering as Peter's, David sets his sights on performing an almost impossible piece of piano music, Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto in D-Minor. Achieving an impossible goal leaves nothing, and the fragile emotional shelf shatters. David suffers a nervous breakdown, and several years down the line we are formally introduced to the man.
Geoffrey Rush's adult David is a chain-smoking, shaking wreck. His words pour out of his mouth non- stop, and everything we hear him say is stream-of-consciousness. His doctors forbid him to touch a piano, but his fingers play the pieces they've memorized. On pieces of furniture, on the water in the bathtub, the fingers know the notes that his heart cannot play. That he eventually will play is a foregone conclusion. But the means to that end is not. There will be at least one more meeting with the father who declared him dead, and a surprising resolution to his story after the introduction of an astrologer (Lynn Redgrave).
Shine is an emotional piece of work. Strong performances by Mueller-Stahl and Rush add layers to a screenplay which tells little more than a simple story. It is not built as a stock story of a man overcoming adversity, though it could have been. It does not seek to explain why fans of the child prodigy would care for him as the wreck of an adult he would become. But they will, and the story that plays out onscreen is a touching one.
As with every film that earns more than a notation on my Nominations list, Shine carries the standard "Oscar race" rating of
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