As opportunistic and portentous as your average tragic-genius biopic—the genre is, after all, beholden only to history and hindsight—Hilary and Jackie eventually earns its scars in ways you can’t anticipate from the way first-time director Anand Tucker clods up the story’s groundwork. It’s not unusual: moviemakers have long forgotten the art of introducing us into a film’s environment without obvious exposition, sketchy dramatic highlights or punch-projected symbolism. In a hammy, Shine-like whorl, Hilary and Jackie tries far too hard to dictate emotional involvement right out of the gate, and you’re left counting off the doom-laden cues for things that are sure to return full circle.
That Tucker’s restless bolero does build into a relevant and eloquent thunder is largely due to Emily Watson, making her latest crucifixion count like all get out, and to the story of Jacqueline du Pré itself. At first you’re convinced the movie will glibly extol the passionate bond of siblings; by the end, it has played out the ambivalent ballad of sisterhood like few movies have managed. The du Pré sisters were both ’50s musical prodigies; though Hilary was first to be lauded for the flute, she was soon passed by Jackie, whose operatic affair with the cello made her, by her teen years, an international phenomenon. (In the film, they have a brother, Piers, who does little more than hold the family radio and TV antennae.)
As with another Pre oversubjected to biopicity, Jackie’s fame cost her big-time. (Would there be a film if it didn’t?) Intimate but cruelly competitive since they were kids, married country mouse Hilary (Rachel Griffiths) and lonely celebrity Jackie (Watson) spend their lives envying each other, until the balance shifts in Hilary’s favor when Jackie begins to slip gears, sabotages her relationships, turns up at her sister’s manse, and begs to screw her Liam Neeson–esque husband (David Morrissey).
That Jackie ends up being plagued with MS isn’t the cliché it might be, not as it’s seen here, fogging over her perceptions as her hands and cello seem to furiously play an Elgar concerto without her. Screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce divides the narrative up into two Rashomon halves, and though Griffiths shines in the quieter role, Watson shakes the rafters. Her Jackie isn’t just a disjointed talent, she’s thorny, girlish, anarchic, given to mocking foreign languages right to natives’ faces, and prone to self destructively leaving her priceless cello behind at airports. Watson is a mercurial presence with huge, nervous baby eyes, and when she cuts loose, an otherwise conventional film shudders with anxiety. Still, the movie’s money moment belongs to the two of them, huddled in bed together during the late stages of Jackie’s affliction, and it’s worth waiting for.