The Common Good
March-April 1997

A Parable For Our Times

by Adrian Stevens Glamorgan | March-April 1997

David Helfgott's search for meaning.

"Life is cruel," the elder Helfgott tells his son: "The weak get crushed like insects." Against such a burdened and often violent expectation of life, the young David Helfgott valiantly struggles to excel at the concert piano, win the approval of the family patriarch, and yet find his adult self. The result is Shine, an independent Australian film delighting and astonishing audiences around the world.

Shine adapts the biography of a child prodigy growing up in an immigrant family in Perth, Australia, during the 1950s. It illuminates a tender struggle full of warmth and humor as well as shadows, as David Helfgott transcends the limits of poverty and domination. Says writer Jan Sardi, "When you’re dealing with someone’s life you tread that fine line between events that are known to have happened and your own creative license, because the film must be entertaining."

Entertaining the story is. The magic ingredients of Shine include many memorable performances: Noah Taylor and Geoffrey Rush (winner of a Golden Globe for his performance) play the young and mature Helfgott. Armin Mueller-Stahl has a pivotal role as the father, and Sir John Gielgud gives a warm performance as Helfgott’s professor. Jan Sardi contributes an excellent script, with striking cinematography and direction by Geoffrey Simpson and Scott Hicks, respectively. Of course the music is a treat, played by the real-life David Helfgott, whose story this movie chronicles.

Shine is multilayered. It can be enjoyed for its humor and emotionality, visual pleasure, musicality, and plain quirkiness. It is also a parable for our times. If the wounded father’s instruction to "always win" threatens to destroy both family and Helfgott’s inner personality, how might the same untrammeled message of competition and survival of the fittest undermine our own community? At the peak of young Helfgott’s career at the Royal College of Music in London, an intense moment of success is won through disembodiment, with a brilliant Rachmaninoff performance being clacked to the wooden thud of keyboard. Is such success worthwhile?

The skill of Shine becomes apparent in that such questions are never labored, but wait to be discovered. The viewer is carried along by empathy and catharsis. The story has a universal theme which will strike "big fat chords" with those who have come into contact with the migration experience, known violence in the home, hungered for a father, or embarked on the search for meaning and the path to maturity. It is refreshing that such a richly braided film can deal with so many issues seamlessly and tenderly.

By the conclusion of the film, the character Helfgott has found a kind of redemption. His surname, after all, means "with the help of God." But whose God? Raised in the shadow of the Holocaust, a time when God seemed to desert the good, his immigrant father has been wounded irrevocably. For the younger Helfgott, Judaism could have been an answer; Isaac Stern’s promise of America ("land of the free... Mickey Mouse") another. Leftists offer their support but, outside a close mentor relationship with writer Katherine Susannah Pritchard (Googie Withers), for most of Helfgott’s early life the music of the spheres seems enough.

Only when things get difficult, Christianity—in a well-meaning, if somewhat effete, way—lends a hand. But kindness by itself seems only half an answer, a strategy unable to contain the scattered energies of a musical genius who has lost his way. Is it in the stars? Helfgott’s astrologer wife (played by Lynn Redgrave) has her own faith.

Helfgott finds his redemption, but is not allowed to resolve the uncontainable mysteries or injuries of life neatly. "Always win" becomes the more accepting "you can’t give up." There are no easy answers, but what is left is inspirational.

Adrian Stevens Glamorgan, a Quaker, playwright, and new father, lives in Perth, Australia. David Helfgott is embarking on a "North American Shine" tour in March 1997.

Shine. Directed by Scott Hicks. Released by Momentum Films, 1996.

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