Based on the life of Australian pianist David Helfgott, Shine is a moving story of love and redemption, the kind that appeals to romantics and sentimentalists.
Like all biographical films, Shine shapes and alters true events for dramatic effect, but, according to Helfgott, his wife, and some of his siblings, the movie is essentially true. One of Helfgott's sisters, Margaret, claims that the film misrepresents her father, that he was a "saint," but others who knew the family when the children were growing up agree that the Helfgott father was tyrannical and cruel. Some even allow that the movie depicts him as gentler than he was.
Whatever the biographical truth may be, the movie must stand on its own. It is well-crafted and presents an absorbing and satisfying story.
In the movie, Helfgott is a musical prodigy whose father pushes and bullies him to perfect his piano playing, but stands in the way of the boy's opportunities to study away from parental control.
Peter Helfgott, played by Armin Mueller-Stahl, is depicted as a bitter dictatorial perfectionist who tries to relive his own disappointing life by means of his son. Whenever the boy displays a will of his own, the father reacts with angry words of disapproval or, a couple of times, with blows.
Three actors portray David Helfgott:
Alex Rafalowicz - David as a child
Noah Tayor - David as an adolescent
Geoffrey Rush - David as an adult
The two young actors do an excellent job of conveying the plight of a child who tries to please a parent who cannot be pleased. Taylor, especially, turns in a flawless performance and in fact has more screen time than Rush, who won the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role.
Shine was one of the 1996 films that got a lot of Oscar buzz. It was nominated in seven categories, but won only the one that went to Geoffrey Rush. It garnered 38 wins and 34 nominations for other movie awards.
1996 was the year of Sling Blade, Fargo, and The English Patient, all Oscar-worthy movies. Fargo won two of its seven Oscar nominations: Best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, and Frances McDormand for Best Actress in a Leading Role. No argument there.
The Winner of Best Actor in a Leading Role, however, is not so clear-cut.
For one thing, it can be argued that Rush is not the leading actor in Shine; Noah Taylor is. Taylor has the most screen time and carries the film for most of the story.
It's a situation similar to what happened in 1999 with The Sixth Sense when Haley Joel Osment was nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. If anyone is the Leading Actor in that film, it's Osment.
While I'm at it, I'll make another comment about the 1996 Oscar committee's choice of Best Actor. Rush's performance as the schizophrenic Helfgott--as consistent and impressive as it is--has to take second place to Billy Bob Thornton's performance as the equally peculiar Karl Childers. Moreover, Thornton sustained his difficult portrayal for the full length of the movie.
Comparisons aside, Shine is a remarkable movie certain to affect the viewer on more than one level. It's painful to watch the relationship between the boy and his bully of a father. Yet the father is not entirely unsympathetic. He seems to be suffering from his own wounded childhood. His control of David stems from the efforts of his inner child to make up for what he missed because of his own father's insensitivity.
Rush's performance is fascinating to watch. I saw a video clip of real-life David Helfgott. Rush reproduces the man's movements and the stacatto, fragmented speech to perfection.