May 28, 2018
Shine (1996)
Grade: 66/100

Director: Scott Hicks
Stars: Geoffrey Rush, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Noah Taylor

What it's about. David Helfgott grows up as a child prodigy pianist in Australia. His father is an overbearing (and sometimes violent) Jewish immigrant from Germany. His mother and sisters are nice but unwilling to protect him from tough-love Papa's wrath. Meanwhile, Helfgott's burgeoning talent commands the attention of piano teacher Nicholas Bell.

Helfgott (Noah Taylor) soon participates in national competitions, and gets a college scholarship to England, where he is tutured by John Gielgud. There, he finds more success, but has a mental breakdown.

Many years have passed, and the now nutty David is played by Geoffrey Rush. David is rediscovered playing in a restaurant, has a failed relationship with Beryl (Beverley Dunn), and marries Gillian (Lynn Redgrave).

How others will see it. Shine was a great commercial success for an art house movie. It was roundly acclaimed by critics, and was nominated for a slew of awards at the major film festivals.

More than two decades later, at, the movie has a fairly high 47K user votes and a high user rating of 7.7 out of 10. The rating is consistent across all audience demographics.

Unsurprisingly, the user reviews are predominantly full of praise. Headline keywords are "powerful", "wonderful", "stunning", etc. Humbugs have their say, too, but are decidedly in the minority.

How I felt about it. The fact check comes first. Shine takes vast liberties with the truth. The actual David Helfgott married at age 23 to Clare Papp. They had four children. Helfgott did not collapse onstage after playing the Rach #3, and his father did not beat him. Helfgott's family was not poor.

Critics also often contest how well Helfgott played the piano. Just because he was mentally ill does not make him a genius, or even a good pianist when judged at a professional level.

So, it is best to regard Shine as fiction. David Helfgott the person has scant relation with David Helfgott the character. With this caveat always in mind, Shine becomes a pretty good movie.

Which is a surprise. Normally, credit for a good movie would fall upon the director, in this case Scott Hicks, or the writer, in this case Jan Sardi. Indeed, both Hicks and Sardi were nominated at the Oscars, the Golden Globes, and BAFTA. They went zero for 9 at those three festivals, if Best Picture is included, while Geoffrey Rush won Best Actor at each.

It is true that playing characters with mental or physical handicaps is a proven path to Oscar glory. The notion of an 'idiot savant' is appealing, a man who can't tie his shoes or carry a conversation, but who has some redeeming, extraordinary talent. Give David a piano and he's the life of the party. Take it away, and it's back to the funny farm.

Nonetheless, my premise is that Shine was a success due to its casting. In particular, we like Armin Mueller-Stahl as David's difficult father, and Noah Taylor as the youthful David. Geoffrey Rush's blabbering impersonation of the adult David is undoubtedly an embarrassment to the Helfgott family, but he provides an ingratiating presence that explains why so many people are willing to adopt him.