Hilary and Jackie

Jan 20, 1999 at 12:00 am

Hilary and Jackie is a dual biography of two real-life sisters who, although not twins, shared that kind of intense, mysterious bond. The du Pré sisters were both musical; and, as children, Hilary -- the eldest who took their mother's instruction and discipline to heart -- won awards and recognition as a flutist while Jackie floundered.

But, as director Anand Tucker shows with swift efficiency in his superb examination of dovetailed lives, Jackie finds her voice on the cello, and this awkward, mischievous caterpillar is transformed into a rare, precious butterfly: 1960s classical music superstar Jacqueline du Pré.

Screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce has adapted the biography A Genius in the Family, written by Hilary and brother Piers, into a simple but ingenious structure. The film begins with their childhood and then splits at the point where Jacqueline du Pré has her first major recital -- and is literally and figuratively torn away from her close-knit family -- showing some of the pivotal events of their new lives apart, first through the eyes of Hilary (Rachel Griffiths), then through the very different perspective of Jackie (Emily Watson).

Although much revolves around their husbands, it is ultimately the relationship between the two sisters that reigns supreme in their lives. Jackie marries conductor-pianist Daniel Barenboim (James Frain) followed by a whirlwind of concert dates and hotel rooms, while Hilary and Kiffer Finzi (David Morrissey) find peace with family life in the English countryside.

Then one day, a burned-out and mentally shaky Jackie shows up for an extended stay with Hilary and, in their symbiotic shorthand, asks for her sister's husband. A reluctant Hilary okays the affair, hoping to strengthen Jackie's tenuous grasp on sanity.

But it turns out that Jackie's fears were grounded in harsh reality: She is diagnosed with the degenerative nerve disease multiple sclerosis, which soon robs this extraordinary musician of the ability to play.

Hilary and Jackie has two remarkable performances at its core. Emily Watson (Breaking the Waves, The Boxer) combines a playful impishness with the frenzied, almost sexual way Jacqueline du Pré played her cello. Rachel Griffiths (Muriel's Wedding, Jude) once again takes a role that might seem thankless or merely reactionary and makes it the film's anchor, particularly in the quietly devastating moments when Hilary cradles her long-estranged, dying sister.

This scene beautifully echoes the central visual metaphor that director Anand Tucker has constructed for Hilary and Jackie, that of two little girls on a windswept beach, desperately clutching to each other with the conviction that if they hold on long and hard enough, they won't be blown apart.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].