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Classic Review Friday – Scott Hicks’ “Shine” (1996)

Scott Hicks’ Shine is a brilliant film about the damage that can be done by a traumatic experience during childhood – whether a single devastating event or a prolonged poisonous relationship. The film tells the true story of David Helfgott and his struggle to celebrate his love of music despite the stifling instruction of his father Peter Helfgott, a Holocaust survivor intent on preserving the integrity of his family by all means possible. And as the desires of father and son square off, the result alternates between tragic and overwhelmingly uplifting.

Shine opens during a rain storm on David Helfgott, played by an unparalleled Geoffrey Rush, as he struggles through the dark outside of a restaurant. Inside, he stammers and mumbles his name to an employee and eventually makes clear that he is staying at a nearby hotel. The woman helps him find his hotel room in the storm, and David tries to impress her with his classical sheet music and recordings, but she does not respond to his enthusiasm. Here, in the dark and alone, David goes unrecognized.

From here, we enter an extended flashback, where we will revisit the earlier portion of David’s life in an effort to better understand the context of that opening scene. First, we see David as a young child (played by Alex Rafalowicz) sharing his father Peter’s love of music. Peter brings home the sheet music to the iconic Third Piano Concerto by Sergei Rachmaninoff and casually keys out the opening bars of the piece, which will be important both musically and thematically throughout the film.

Peter recognizes musical ability in his son David, but applies a great deal of pressure on him to perform in competitions. At this stage, Peter’s sternness may seem overbearing, but we are mostly forgiving of it. By the time David is a little older and begins to attract the attention of a professional piano instructor, his father’s desire to shelter David from the outside world and domineer over his teachings starts to feel unreasonable. By explaining how thin the margins for success are in the world of competitive piano performance, the piano instructor is able to convince Peter to abandon teaching David himself – but Peter still remains quite entangled in the choice of what David plays – always Rachmaninoff.

David takes to instruction very well, and we see him winning piano competitions and being invited to a school in America. But his father forbids him to go, believing that it will destroy the family. As this conflict erupts, Peter’s anger becomes physical as he beats David for disobeying, and David’s only recourse is to shit in the bathwater before it is his father’s turn to wash – which earns him another beating, this time with a wet towel.

We bristle at Peter’s violence against the people he professes to love, but it comes from a tragic place: he lost his entire family at a young age due to the Holocaust. This does not excuse his actions, but it does provide them with context; he is not a mean drunk caricature, but a complex man fearful of losing that which he prizes most for the second time in his life. Eventually, when David is invited to attend the Royal College of Music in London, his father again assaults him physically, but also threatens profound emotional damage: cutting David off from the rest of the family. David must follow his dreams, and so departs for London. Soon thereafter, Peter is seen burning his scrapbook of David’s accomplishments, symbolizing his complete abandonment of David.

At the Royal College of Music, David’s eccentricities accumulate, but he also becomes an even more-accomplished pianist as he feverishly studies Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto for his thesis performance. Without a doubt, this choice hearkens back to the mutual love of Rachmaninoff that David shared with his father, and possibly represents David’s desire to bridge the rift between them. And, though David performs the concerto wonderfully, he collapses on stage and suffers a nervous breakdown which is treated through electroshock therapy. When he returns to Australia, he is not welcome in his childhood home. The second act ends as the film began: with David alone and broken.

Eventually, David returns to the restaurant from the first scene of the film (because his landlady has locked him out of his piano), and continues to ramble and stutter to the patrons. In an effort to humor him, they let him sit at the piano, where he tinkles a few keys. One particularly boorish man makes fun of him and calls, “Bravo, encore!, Sock it to us, Liberace!” David responds appropriately, in this wonderful scene:


Geoffrey Rush earns his Best Actor Oscar throughout the film, but his insistence on learning his piano pieces himself (or at least the fingering, to prevent the use of a hand double) pays particular dividends here, as we get not only masterful piano playing, but also a number of wry cigarette puffs and the turning of his head to look back at his heckler in the middle of the song. Old David has always looked broken and alone to us, and this is a stunning introduction to his abilities, his joy, and his attempt to reconnect with other people. It is perfectly framed and edited, bouncing back and forth between David and the patrons, and reignites a sense of joy that the film has been missing for quite some time.

Of course, David’s relationship with his father remains strained, and the conflict comes to a tragic resolution as David re-establishes a link to his community. Sensing that David has recovered, Peter approaches him, and actually asks for David to apologize so that things can go back to how they were. In a aching, bittersweet moment of strength, David rebukes his father. Once, all David wanted was to make his father proud; now he merely feels abject pity as he realizes that his father cares far more about David’s talents than about David himself. This is not the foundation for a loving relationship, but a parasitic one, and David ends it once and for all.

This scene is clearly the dramatic climax of the film, and the remaining denouement involves David meeting a woman, falling in love, and marrying her while returning to performing piano for live audiences again. He is still quite eccentric, and much of this last portion of the film feels rushed, likely because the major conflict has now been resolved. The film ends with David and his new wife at his father’s funeral – a final resolution which he is now strong enough to face.

Shine is above all else a celebration of the joys in life, and the struggles one must overcome in their pursuit. These struggles could be mental illness, isolation, or even horrible unkindness from those who should love you most. David is abused and pained at nearly every turn, yet he is still drawn to the ivory keys of a piano, and the untarnished beauty that they can produce. Through his craft, David finds salvation from his demons, and the joy of living his own life.

If you are at all a fan of classical music, and especially of Rachmaninoff, I cannot recommend this film highly enough.  Please sound in with your opinions of Shine in the comments section, and don’t forget to share / like if you found this review entertaining or otherwise helpful.  Since the first two weeks of this month have included traveling, deleted computer documents, and other projects, I have been neglecting Classic Review Friday.  In an attempt to fix that, the final two weeks of this month will include TWO Classic Review Friday pieces each, so stay tuned for the next one!  Thanks for reading.

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Derek Jacobs

Chicago,IL 60606

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