When we meet the hero of the stirring Australian movie Shine, we don’t know quite what to make of this odd, tic-ridden, chattering misfit who stumbles into a wine bar from a pouring rain. Is this bespectacled, chain-smoking middle-aged man one of the homeless? A madman? Is his whirring, strangely jaunty energy benign or malignant? Who is this guy, the bar’s nervous staff wonders. So do we.
His name is David Helfgott, he’s famous here in Australia as a concert pianist, and “Shine,” which is based on true events, tells a remarkable story. The movies have always been fond of tales of real people overcoming adversity, but with notable exceptions, such as “My Left Foot,” they often come out mawkish and banal. Director Scott Hicks’s movie, which was received with a standing ovation at the Sundance Film Festival last January, has a lot of advance hype to live up to. A great film? Perhaps not. But a rousing, stylish and extremely well-acted one that, thanks to its vividly unconventional protagonist, pumps fresh blood into a conventional formula.
As a child in Adaleide, Helfgott (first payed by 7-year-old Alex Rafalowicz) is pushed hard to perform by his father, Peter (Armin Muller-Stahl), a Polish Jewish refugee who lost his own mother and father in the Holocaust. As David matures into a teenage prodigy (the gifted Noah Taylor), his domineering father’s love turns harsh and suffocating: he forbids his son to study in America, for fear of losing him. Mueller-Stahl’s portrayal of this authoritarian father is masterful – he’s an ogre whose demons are fully understandable. David finally rebels, but at a terrible psychic cost. He flees with a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London, where his talent is unleashed by his professor (John Gielgud, in fine form) but where this obsessive, guilt-ridden boy’s grasp on reality begins to unwind. In the midst of a performance of the Rachmaninoff Third, he collapses in a nervous breakdown.
The David we first saw in that wine bar – the hyuper, jabbering David who returned to Australia, went through various institutions and didn’t touch a piano for years (his doctors feared it would over-excite him) – is played by a riveting Australian stage actor named Geoffrey Rush. He makes this eccentric figure fascinating without ever pleading for our sympathy. It’s a bravura performance. “Shine” shows how this grown-up David makes his gradual way back to the concert stage, with the help of a Sydney astrologer (Lynn Redgrave) who first befriends and the marries him. It is a most unlikely (though true) love story, but one that Jan Sardi’s otherwise estimable script renders far too sketchily. We believe it because it happened, not because the movie makes it fully believable.
Hicks clearly feels this story deeply and, with the aid of cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson (“Little Women”), tells it in bold, striking images. As befits the subject, with his taste for the romantic repertoire, “Shine” is not afraid of stirring up big emotions. It earns them honorably.