It may seem cruel to pick on a life-affirming movie based on the true story of a man learning to live with mental illness, but Shine, which has gotten wide acclaim and seven Oscar nominations (including Best Picture), isn’t exactly an underdog. I didn’t hate it — the middle section is intriguing. But the film overall is no more striking or moving than your average triumph-over-hardship TV movie. Shine is about David Helfgott, played by three actors (Alex Rafalowicz in boyhood, Noah Taylor in his teens and twenties, Geoffrey Rush in adulthood), an Australian piano prodigy bullied into excellence by his father (Armin Mueller-Stahl). Whenever David’s talent threatens to take him away from his family, the father stomps him flat with a guilt trip. We see that David plays (and lives) more for Daddy than for himself.
Finally David works up the guts to leave home and go to London’s Royal College of Music, where he comes under the benevolent wing of professor Cecil Parkes (John Gielgud, still vibrant and spry at 92). David seems happier with his new, supportive father figure until, in concert, he attempts Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 3, which the movie presents as the pianist’s equivalent of Mount Everest. David fights his way through the piece in a frenzy, then collapses onstage. We’re to understand that David tried, as Cecil advised, to pour his emotions into “Rach 3,” and that he had so much repressed rage at his father that he burned himself out. But Shine, directed by Scott Hicks from a script by Jan Sardi, has an unconventional structure that works against it. The movie keeps flashing forward to the adult David, played by Geoffrey Rush as a happy if strenuously daft guy. Not only does this distract us from David’s anguish in earlier times, it reassures us at frequent intervals that he wound up frazzled but sociable and basically okay.
Shine feels like a routine docudrama with pieces missing — left out by design. Hicks skips over David’s recovery and focuses on his learning to take pleasure in playing — in restaurants and, finally, in concert again. In the last section, David falls in love with an astrologer (Lynn Redgrave, looking baffled) and is obsessively talkative and huggy with everyone he meets. Huh? How’d he go from the recessive Noah Taylor to the obnoxious Rain-Man-on-Prozac Geoffrey Rush?
We’ve seen people overcoming disabilities in dozens of movies (My Left Foot was the best recent one), and we’ve even visited the troubled psyche of a great pianist in the mesmerizing Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould. The movie is really an Oscar sandwich — stale bread surrounding a big piece of ham: Geoffrey Rush. This certainly is the sort of turn that wins awards, which isn’t a compliment. And for the record, I’m tired of movies that give us sweet, elfin, spontaneous crazies so life-affirming and irrepressible you just want to smack them. Here’s a guy who thinks nothing of giving his wife’s breasts a squeeze in front of a packed concert audience. I would’ve loved to hear just one character in Shine say, “Okay, he’s been through a lot and he’s an okay player, but the fact is he’s an asshole.”