Playing by Heartburn

The cello and other stringed instruments.

Hilary and Jackie
Directed by Anand Tucker
October Films

Playing by Heart
Directed by Willard Carroll
Miramax Films

Directed by Sidney Lumet
Sony Pictures

For nearly a decade I’ve been obsessed by the cellist Jacqueline du Pré, whose tremulous, frequently rhapsodic recordings of concertos by Elgar, Schumann, and Dvorák formed the cornerstone of my music library. That’s why I’ve been puzzled by my reluctance to tackle Hilary and Jackie, which pretends to tell the story of du Pré and her elder sister from their childhood as prodigies (Hilary played the flute) to Jacqueline’s excruciating decline and early death (in 1987) from multiple sclerosis. I suppose I hoped that the movie–which opened on Christmas Day in New York and Los Angeles to qualify for the Academy Awards and has been opening across the country over the last few weeks–would just go away. In England, it has been reviled as a slander by musicians and music critics, but on this side of the Atlantic its reception has been warm, and there’s a strong chance that Emily Watson will win an Oscar nomination for her committed turn as the unstable cellist. So I suppose I’ll finally have to confront this thing. As drama, Hilary and Jackie is merely sketchy and superficial. As a portrait of the artist, it’s puritanical crap.

Like many, I first encountered du Pré in the Elgar cello concerto in D minor, a work of aching disillusionment that somehow rises to heights of sublimity. (Who’d have thought the old Tory had so much blood in him?) It wasn’t du Pré’s tone that hooked me–there are more limpid cellos–but the intensity of her bowing. You don’t need to have seen du Pré in the flesh to feel an immersion that stops just short of hysteria. Indeed, footage shows her strawberry-blond hair whipping around her head, her skirts hiked up, her thighs tightly gripping her Stradivarius: The ecstatic sexual component is hard to ignore. She was unconventional, too: She played with un-English emotional abandon, married a Jew (Daniel Barenboim, the pianist and conductor), and experimented with drugs. So it was probably inevitable that her life and music would turn into fodder for a cautionary parable about the counterculture, complete with the kind of lingering death that lends itself readily to familiar depictions of classical musicians’ physical and mental illness.

The instrument of Jacqueline du Pré’s defilement is A Genius in the Family, a memoir by Hilary du Pré and their brother, Piers (who gets all but lost in the transfer to film). As the title implies, all was not equal in the du Pré household. Although Hilary got off to a blazing start as a flutist, her little sister eventually left her in the dust, and the family’s life came to revolve around the needs of its increasingly demanding young star. The film, from a screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce, accords the sisters equal status, telling the story of each in a separate strands, first Hilary’s life, then Jackie’s. At the end the two strands converge. After her own musical career recedes, Hilary (Rachel Griffiths) retreats to a bucolic country cottage with her love-smitten swain of a husband (David Morrissey) and her children. There are plenty of animals and no shortage of healthy (i.e., amateur) music-making. Then we take a similar journey with Jackie (Watson), who, denied a proper childhood and family life, pines away in foreign capitals, behaves with increasing waywardness and vulgarity (she adopts a bogus Continental accent), and expires in near solitude, with only her loyal sister to remind her of God’s love.

It’s difficult to believe that serious critics have praised Hilary and Jackie for its insight into the artistic mind, since that insight consists largely of the notion that People Like That Are Different From Us. The director, Anand Tucker, views Jackie from an uncomprehending distance, fixating largely on her freakishness. She seems never to rehearse or to hold opinions about the composers whose works she serves, and her rapport with Barenboim (James Frain, whose performance is likely circumscribed by considerations of libel) is chiefly the upshot of their comparable celebrity. The centerpiece of the movie is when the two narratives come together and Jackie descends on Hilary’s cottage like an invading parasite. Flouncing about in her furs and miniskirts and drinking heavily, she uses emotional blackmail to convince Hilary to let her bed her husband –before returning to Paris and her own, evidently unsatisfying, marriage. The illness that strikes her down could be viewed as vengeance for a profoundly unnatural existence.

Friends and colleagues of Jacqueline du Pré have attacked Hilary and Jackie for both its factual distortions and its unflattering depiction of an allegedly generous artist–but I frankly don’t care if the picture is accurate or not. The larger point is that’s it’s all dashes and ellipses, skipping lightly along the surface of both Jackie’s career and Hilary’s noncareer, and wanton in its exploitation of both Elgar and MS to generate pathos and awe. Watson does an exquisite impersonation of a troubled soul; it’s probably not her fault that this lonely fruitcake doesn’t connect with anything I hear in du Pré’s fearless playing, which manages to be both willful and restrained in equal measure. Many talented musicians are unstable; the wonder is how they also manage to be so disciplined. In Hilary and Jackie genius is too vulnerable to plague.

P laying by Heart has the strident psuedosophistication of a late-night dorm room colloquy as dramatized by a sophomore busy congratulating himself for having more insight into love than all the incoming freshmen. In college, where this sort of material is usually performed (before the script is stashed away in mom and dad’s basement alongside the beanbag chairs and weathered bongs), the older couple is played by a matronly senior and a skinny guy with white shoe polish in his hair. Here the writer-director, Willard Carroll, gets to hear his pretentious lines read by Gena Rowlands and Sean Connery, who (if the press clips are to be believed) jumped at the chance to stand around a kitchen and argue about events that happened 25 years in the past. “There’s nothing to talk about.” “Of course there is.” “But I don’t want to … I have a brain tumor.”

The rest of the film jumps around among similar twosomes, plus Dennis Quaid as a mysterious loner who wanders into bars and tells fantastic tales of tragedy to whomever will listen. Madeleine Stowe and Anthony Edwards meet in hotels for kinky, anonymous sex. Cute party girl Angelina Jolie chases skinny pretty-boy Ryan Phillippe, who is peculiarly unresponsive to her blandishments. Schlumpy theater director Gillian Anderson is courted by a Mr. Adorable, Jon Stewart, but fears that if she opens herself up to him she’ll get hurt. Ellen Burstyn hovers at the hospice bed of her dying, gay son (Jay Mohr). Each couple is engaged in its own emotional tug of war but disinclined to confront their “issues” head on. In the words of Jolie, “Talking about love is like dancing about architecture.”

“Dancing About Architecture” was meant to be the movie’s title, but the more generic Playing by Heart comes closer to conveying its deep banality. The only difference between this and a conventional soap opera (or, for that matter, an episode of The Love Boat) is that Carroll doesn’t spell out the interrelationship among the couples until the final scene, a symbolic remarriage in which the characters realize that talking about love might be as futile as dancing about architecture, but you have to do it anyway if your life is going to mean anything. (A character who is HIV positive expresses that sentiment most clearly, the glimpse of his own mortality having given him a perspective that the others come to only gradually.) Anderson gives the most tart and likable performance, but she, along with the rest of the cast, has to struggle with dialogue that has the tackiness of flypaper. When she announces, “I don’t want any more calculated artificiality,” it’s a wonder the house doesn’t erupt in cries of “Bravo!”

G loria, a gritty Sharon Stone vehicle … Hold it–there’s something about the words “gritty” and “Sharon Stone” that don’t belong in the same sentence. Stone does best when playing creamy glamour girls with predatory streaks, but it’s not hard to see why she’d want to play Gloria. The movie is a remake of a 1980 John Cassavetes sausage (a rare formula picture for the maverick director) about a gangster’s mistress (Gena Rowlands, who has a cameo here) who stands up to her lover by rescuing a little Spanish boy whose family has been wiped out by mobsters. So Stone gets to stride around in short skirts and spiked heels and hold a gun on big Irish guys and refer to herself as a “broad.” She gets to act tough but vulnerable and talk with a Noo Yawk accent and say, “I’m trying to change my life here!” And she’s enough of a star that you root for her–not so much to save the kid as to make it through the movie without unduly embarrassing herself.

No such luck. The director is Sidney Lumet, who functions as the opposite of a safety net: Even chronic underactors overact in Lumet pictures, and his camera is somehow always in the right place to catch them doing it. Lumet’s tempo and staging are just realistic enough to allow you to resent him for melodramatic devices that slicker directors get away with. He makes a fatal miscalculation: The initial murders are so horrifying in their plainness that when the movie takes the gentlemanly way out and refuses to provide a cathartic bloodbath, the audience feels burned. A real gentleman, meanwhile, might have protected Stone from showing so much flesh to so little effect. In one scene, in a coffee shop, the kid she’s protecting hides under the table next to her ample legs. Once upon a time both he–and the audience–would be trying to peek up her short skirt. But the thrill, alas, is gone.