Hilary and Jackie
1998, R, 121 min. Directed by Anand Tucker. Starring Emily Watson, Rachel Griffiths, David Morrissey, James Frain.
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., Jan. 29, 1999
For all its knock-'em-dead acting and aggressively stylish direction, Hilary and Jackie is still best described as arthouse comfort food: a big, proteiny platterful of cinematic meatloaf cooked to order for an audience with a limitless appetite for soap opera coated with a light, sophisticated glacé of highbrow-culture ambience. And that's fine. Just don't let your expectations get carried away by all the gratuitous hype that Tucker's laudable but hardly dazzling film seems to be generating. That said, one area in which H&J fully justifies its polyorgasmic critical response is the lead performances by Watson (Breaking the Waves, The Boxer) and Griffiths (Muriel's Wedding) as musician sisters Hilary and Jacqueline DuPré. The story is based on a memoir by Hilary about her intense, often strained relationship with Jackie, a world-famous cellist who died of multiple sclerosis at the age of 42. Everything revolves around the two women and their responses to each other. There's hardly a scene in which one or both are not present. And although the spectacularly gifted Watson is the bigger star here, Griffiths' role is every bit as challenging. She meets the challenge head-on, developing a finely articulated study of a human identity being first broken down in young adulthood, then painfully rebuilt from newer, sturdier materials. This is critical to the film's success, given the strong suggestion that differences in ambition and childhood experience, not innate talent, were what steered Jackie toward superstardom and Hilary toward domestic obscurity in a small country village. Both women, we learn, have been shaped by the perceptions of others regarding who's the greater and lesser light. By young adulthood, the die is cast. Jackie's a world-class musical prodigy (also, unfortunately, an insufferable prima donna) married to boy wonder conductor Daniel Barenboim (Frain). Hilary, meanwhile, has bailed out of the sibling rivalry and refocused her energies on raising her family, playing music only occasionally with local amateurs. The onset of Jackie's MS, which Watson portrays with agonizing believability, swings the power balance back toward Hilary while raising the ultimate question of which woman has, all things considered, lived most richly. It's hard to knock Hilary and Jackie on any count. As a classy soaper about the conflicting calls of artistic ambition and personal satisfaction I'd place it roughly on par with The Turning Point, which inspired a similarly unwarranted amount of critical fawning in its day. However -- and this is my most serious reservation -- it suffers direly from the absence of any truly indelible scenes that might have pushed it across the line separating high-quality diversion from something more enduring and transcendent. Despite all of Tucker's efforts to impose that missing luster by force of camera wizardry and subtle magical-realist flourishes, there's just no faking it: Meatloaf is meatloaf, no matter how crafty the seasoning or how stylish the presentation.