In the film, we are first shown David Helfgott as an adult (Geoffrey Rush), running in the rain with a futile cigarette hanging from his lips. His speech seems like sporadic sentence fragments jumbled together that never stop flowing from his mouth once he starts to talk. His smile never fades, yet he seems disconnected, lost between time, space and his own confusing string of words. There’s an instant need to know this man’s story.
In Shine, we are shown David’s childhood dominated by his father’s repressed musicality. His father, Peter (Armin Mueller-Stahl), constantly reminds his young boy that he’s lucky to be learning the piano. Peter’s own father had smashed his violin, now Peter will slowly crush his son’s mental state. Between turning David into an amazing child prodigy, pressuring the boy to win all the contests he’s entered in and physically lashing out his anger onto the boy, David only knows his father’s love through fear of failure.
As David grows into adolescence (Noah Taylor), he gains amazing opportunities through his musicality. He is offered to study music in America and it seems that his father couldn’t be more proud. However, just as David is offered a place to live, Peter crushes this dream and forbids his son to leave home, saying David would be punished forever and destroy the family. When David is offered another scholarship to study in London, he hides it from his father as long as possible, defies his father and leaves.
In London, it seems that the nervous and quiet David might finally blossom, it’s the most we have seen him among people his own age and smiling. He feverishly practices and with a professor by his side, finally attempts Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3. It’s the hardest piece of music for pianists, and a goal David knew his father had for him. The images of young David constantly playing, learning and mastering this pianist’s nightmare are stirring, beautiful and bring determination and meaning to the music. Along the way, we notice David forgetting a few things (his pants as he’s checking his mail), and may be pushing himself too hard. Eventually, David suffers a monumental breakdown, landing him in an institution.
Will that college recital be David’s last great moment? From here on out, Rush is back and shows us what an amazing down but not out man David is. Though it’s hard at first to tell what this motor-mouthed David is trying to say and mean, we see clearly that he has a pure heart and a joyous love for music.
One of my favorite scenes is when David is staying at a friend’s house. When she returns, she finds classical music blaring and water over flowing from the sink and shower. Worried, she looks around for David and finds him in the yard, jumping on a trampoline wearing nothing but an unbuttoned overcoat and Walkman headphones. It’s just beautiful to see someone so overjoyed by music that they stop in the midst of everything to just jump around and feel the freedom of the wind on their skin under the blue sky.
Though the journey for David to reclaim his life is the last movement of the film, it is most stirring, heartfelt and we finally see David become his own person, rather than a puppet at the hands of his father. Rush expertly brings David from his darkest hours and into fantastic light while portraying symptoms of his schizophrenia. Rush doesn’t lose David’s character to the mental disorder, but rather shape the symptoms around the already established David. Add in the fact that Rush relearned the piano so he could really be playing and I completely agree that that Oscar for lead actor is well deserved.
I love how this film just wants to celebrate a life. Out of years of abuse, obsession and torment comes this beautiful person who despite his flawed mind is a good and kind person with tremendous talent. Sadly, it feels like Shine has been quietly tucked away while Jerry Maguire has been hailed from hello. That’s a load of bull. You don’t need to know a schizophrenic or love music to connect with this film. Just have a yearning for your own life full of happiness and freedom.
“-No one’s ever been mad enough to attempt the Rach Three.
–Am I mad enough, professor? Am I?”