Hilary and Jackie, the 1998 movie directed by documentarian Anand Tucker, stars Emily Watson as cellist Jacqueline du Pré and Rachel Griffiths as her sister Hilary. It is based on the controversial biography of Jacqueline, A Genius in the Family by Hilary and her brother Piers du Pré, which gives an at-times unflattering portrayal of the great musician, who has been claimed by critics as "the greatest musical prodigy of the 20th century" and whose brilliant career was cut short by multiple sclerosis. True or not, the movie is a beautifully acted story of two sisters and their lifelong interaction, at times close, at times distant, always complex, a relationship of fierce love and loyalty and equally fierce pain and hurt. A true family story, in other words.
Gritchka's write-up on Jackie gives the salient details of her life, but the movie gives flesh - possibly imaginary - to these bare bones. Hilary and Jackie, in this telling, were soulmates as children, and both were musically gifted, Hilary playing flute, Jackie cello. Hilary was the favourite, encouraged by their mother Iris, who scolded Jackie that if she wanted to play with Hilary she'd have to be as good as her. Jackie, through hard work and practice, surpassed her sister, and Hilary, demoralized, failed her flute exam at the Royal Academy of Music; she then married conductor Christopher "Kiffer" Finzi and settled down to wedded life. Jackie, in the meantime, embarked on an international career, taking the classical world by storm with her accomplished playing accompanied by sensual swaying. Her marriage to Argentinian pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim, now director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, consolidated their reputation as a golden couple of the concert halls in the 1970s. But as Jackie became increasingly ill, she circled back to Hilary, eventually asking - and being allowed to - sleep with her sister's husband. The agonizing scenes of Hilary listening to her bed squeak as the two make love are mirrored by the harrowing visions of Jackie losing her motor control and thus her connection with her once-beloved cello. The film's score features some recordings of Jackie's work, including her signature piece, the Elgar cello concerto.
What was so striking for me about the movie is that its narrative focus shifts between the two sisters, and one pivotal scene in particular is revisited twice, once through the eyes of one sister, once through the eyes of the other. Each time it is subtly but completely different, with wounding things being said in one version, not the other. This is the stuff of family life, isn't it? This is how memory works. One person is cut to the quick by an offhand remark, and never forgets, never forgives, while the other is so unaware of what has just happened that they cannot recall the incident at all. And these two sisters, it seems, were caught in just such a human, familial relationship, loving, jealous, supporting, hurting, all wrapped up in an ugly, yet so-familiar, ball.
I loved this film, and was impressed in particular by Emily Watson's performance, though it's no surprise that the actor, previously nominated for an Oscar for "Breaking the Waves", did such a great job portraying the complex Jackie. I recommended this movie to a friend, who confessed that she hadn't gone to see it in the cinema because she'd thought it was about Hillary Clinton and Jackie Onassis. Don't make this mistake. Highly recommended.