Ignore the talk comparing Shine to Rain Man, Awakenings and other mental-handicap snifflefests. Shine, based on the true story of the breakdown and recovery of Australian pianist David Helfgott, is scrappy, sexy, touching and fun. Audaciously directed by Scott Hicks from an unconventional script by Jan Sardi, Shine is also utterly extraordinary: biography without banality, uplift without upchuck, art without artifice. Rank it with the very best movies of the year.
In the first scene, the fortyish David, played by the remarkable Aussie stage actor Geoffrey Rush, stumbles out of a storm into a wine bar. His speech skitters about wildly as if his tongue can’t keep pace with his thoughts. To Sylvia (Sonia Todd), the bar’s owner, he’s a charming kook. When David sits down at Sylvia’s piano, he’s the virtuoso who was a star of the concert stage until 10 years before, when he suffered a breakdown after playing Rachmaninoff’s ball-busting “Piano Concerto No. 3.” Hicks, who tells David’s story in flashbacks, makes the duel between man and piano on the battleground of Rachmaninoff one of the most thrilling scenes in movie memory.
The childhood of young David, played by Alex Rafalowicz, reveals a prodigy prepped to take the world by his father, Peter (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a Polish Holocaust survivor whose own dream to shine, on the violin, has long been shattered. Mueller-Stahl, in a performance of lightning brilliance, is a marvel. Refusing to reduce Peter to a clichTd ogre, Mueller-Stahl shows how a father’s deep love for his son can be twisted by a deeper envy. When the teenaged David, vibrantly portrayed by Noah Taylor, defies his father and sets off to study in London with the great Cecil Parkes (a still-vital John Gielgud), Peter disowns him. The estrangement leaves David unhinged and at odds with the world outside of his music. Success on the concert stage soon gives way to a new role in life: mental patient.
After the wine bar, David picks up his life by marrying Gillian, an astrologer played by a frisky Lynn Redgrave. Their relationship, nurturing and teasingly erotic, frees David to return to the stage. Helfgott himself recorded the music. Rush, who is astounding, never smooths the edges off this wild eccentric. David rarely lights on dull earth, except to apply discipline to the keyboard. Even then, his inspired playing breaks the rules to take flight. Just like the movie. Shine, it does.