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Moth to the fame

By Ray Pride

JANUARY 25, 1999:  Genius: doomed, eh?

Hilary and Jackie Du Pré were sisters who grew up in 1950s England, musical prodigies dutifully encouraged by their proud, patient mother. Hilary (played as an adult by the fierce Rachel Griffiths) shows talent for the flute, and her younger sister, Jackie (who grows up to be Emily Watson) takes up the cello in a rivalry much encouraged by mom. While it draws the sisters closer in their girlish world, adulthood is a different thing, and while Hilary loses interest in music and finds contentment in a domesticated life, Jackie becomes an international marvel, lauded for her great talents as a passionate performer even as her loneliness deepens and her behavior grows increasingly irregular. ("Music that wept" is one critical plaudit she got.) Then, after years of repeatedly trying to sabotage and abandon her own career of ceaseless touring - leaving her priceless cello in taxis and airports; mocking those who might help her - Jackie is struck by MS.

Boldly designed and almost elliptical in its dramatic rush, "Hilary and Jackie" seems at first merely the mounting for another flamboyant, if magnificent performance by Watson. (Of taking yet another intense, demanding role, Watson says dramatically, "I've spent too much time in the tragic rrrrrealm, I think," comically rolling her r's. "I should send a dog poo in a plastic bag to the Farrelly Brothers.")

First-time feature director, the thin, wired, and very emphatic 35-year-old Anant Tucker, says he was first drawn by "this very powerful triumvirate of women at the center of this creative family," but admits over coffee and Danish that he didn't discover the heart of the movie until he began to work with Watson and Griffiths on their complex relationship.

While some viewers have been annoyed by the repetition of scenes, "Rashomon"-style, first from Hilary's point of view, then later in the film, from Jackie's perspective, the effect is shattering when Watson tears into her later scenes. (Her Jacqueline du Pré is the most memorably possessed baby-face since Linda Blair.) Her sharp, lissome instincts are at their momentous best in the second portion, as we see a woman driven by anxiety, self-doubt, self-destruction, a girlish insurgent rebelling against her unwanted career, and ultimately, the disease that disables and kills her.

Tucker says that of all the "lots of filmmaker-y, wanky ideas" he and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce threw at one another, the revisiting of motives through Jackie's eyes was the only one that worked. In the first portion, there's a scene of inexplicable, seeming cruelty. Expecting great gifts from Russia, the family gathers round a parcel, only to unfasten a bundle of unmentionables. But in the second portion, we see Jackie's rapture upon receiving the return post, lost in a large Soviet hotel room, burying her face in the fabrics. "What I think is so wonderful about Frank's writing is that scene with the laundry is so mundane. It's like nothing - dirty laundry. It feels so ridiculous, such a bizarre, selfish thing for her to do. But when you see it [later], from Jackie's point of view, you understand that everything is encapsulated - the loneliness, the dreadful ache for home. For me, when I see that moment on the screen and I see Emily holding that laundry to her face, smelling it, I feel bad that I judged her the first time."

Beyond harnessing the mercurial Watson to an equally mercurial character, Tucker also shows deftness in telling the story through investing objects with metaphorical weight. One heart-wrenching scene shows the young Jackie clambering up a flight of concrete steps, the reluctant burden of her cello case both an emblem of what she's forcing herself to do, to follow her beloved sister's talents, but also like a little coffin - almost exactly her size.

"Well, I'd love to say I planned all that, from the concrete steps on, that whole metaphor," Tucker says, tearing into a second Danish. "I dunno. It's just good production design. I worked with very good people. You go on a location scout, looking for a place that fits a scene, and for some reason, you think, yeah, that's the place. Then you shoot it, and if you get all those elements right in the world of that movie you're making, you hope that it will seem true to the underlying themes of the film. I wish I was that brilliant to think it through, though."

Tucker knows the niche of "Hilary and Jackie" in the marketplace. "The movie has no explosions, it has no bombs, it doesn't have Will Smith being chased by every government agency known to man. All it has is emotional questions that need answering. I think what keeps people watching a movie is, 'What happens next?' It wasn't an intellectual reasoning at all. We're all romantic sops, we cried a lot making this film. We wanted to make people feel, and cry."

After a long pause, he grabs the last bite of his Danish, slugging at his coffee as he exits, saying, "I've always wanted to make movies, y'know. I'm a lucky boy."

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