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Film Review: Shine

Shine (1996; Directed by Scott Hicks)

Geoffrey Rush busted out into a successful film career of owning every role he inhabits by absolutely owning the role of schizoaffective pianist David Helfgott in Shine, a role for which he won a Best Actor Oscar. The key to Rush’s wonderful performance is not the Academy-pleasing depiction of mental illness, but rather the repetitive bursts of creative cognizance that Rush is able to layer into his portrayal of the troubled Australian musical genius. His Helfgott’s speech patterns spiral into rapid-fire nervous outpourings of stream-of-consciousness mental and vocabulary associations. Rush keenly laces these verbal riffs with puns and sneaking wit, crafting them into the linguistic equivalent of his character’s virtuosic piano performances. Therein lies the sparkling brilliance of Rush’s performance, in the clever subtextual connections he painstakingly strings between Helfgott’s art and his illness.

Without its world-class central performance, however, Shine does not consistently live up to its title. Aussie director Scott Hicks’ workmanlike use of his camera makes for a biopic that cuts corners rather than leaving everything up there on the stage. The mid-film climax of Helfgott nearly destroying himself as he performs Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 3 is quite impressive work, but most of the rest of the film is mired in predictable convention. Well-executed and often quite touching convention, certainly, but convention nonetheless. Shine therefore finds itself suffering the fate of many such biopics that capture Oscar gold for a memorable lead performance but whose more general lack of quality denies them cinematic immortality (Ray, Capote, Crazy Heart, Scent of a Woman, one could go on, could one not?).

So. Geoffrey Rush? Pretty amazing. The rest of the film? Not so much.

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