Film » Screens

She Ain't Heavy, She's My Sister

Hilary and Jackie deftly depicts a complex and affecting sibling rivalry.


Genius can be a terrible, destructive gift. Jacqueline du Pre, the brilliant British cellist who enraptured audiences in the '60s and '70s with her musical passion and intensity, lived a life of great renown and acclamation, but also one of harrowing loneliness and emotional turmoil. Her story is movingly told in Hilary and Jackie, a film that examines du Pre's love-hate relationship with her own musical genius and her similarly conflicted relationship with the most important person in her life, her sister Hilary.

The sisters' lives were marked by a deep rivalry--and an even deeper love. As children growing up in England, they were inseparable, with the sensitive, supportive Hilary (played as a girl by Keely Flanders), older by two years, always watching out for Jackie (played as a girl by Auriol Evans). Hilary was a talented flutist whose parents doted on her. Told she could not accompany Hilary to music recitals unless she played as well as her sister did, Jackie dove into the cello, practicing day and night. Her prodigious talent soon commanded the attention of both her family and the music world at large.

Jackie's (played as an adult by the exquisite British actress Emily Watson) rapid rise to international fame took its toll on both sisters. The cellist lacked sufficient emotional preparation for the chaotic life of nonstop touring. Without the love and emotional support of her parents and her sister, Jackie experienced terrible loneliness and a feeling of abandonment. Hilary (Australian actress Rachel Griffiths), her own talent completely ignored in the wake of Jackie's stunning success, grew withdrawn and insecure.

Hilary's self-confidence was partially restored when a young conductor, Kiffer Finzi (David Morrissey), fell in love with her and married her. But instead of being happy for Hilary, Jackie became terribly jealous. Although Jackie married the celebrated young pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim (James Frain), her life continued to be a whirlwind of concert dates and recordings. Increasingly unhappy--even erratic in her behavior--she longed for the simple, secure life she saw her sister living.

Buckling under the strain of her hectic life, Jackie eventually suffered a nervous breakdown and retreated to the farm where Hilary and Kiffer lived with their two young daughters. There, the delicate balance of love and rivalry that had characterized the sisters' relationship all their lives was put to the supreme test when Jackie announced that she wanted to sleep with Kiffer.

Based on the book A Genius in the Family, written by Hilary du Pre and her brother Piers (played in the film by Rupert Penry Jones), Hilary and Jackie explores the fragile but durable love that bound the two sisters. It also covers Jackie's battle with multiple sclerosis, which ended her musical career. Diagnosed in 1973 at the age of 28, Jackie succumbed to the illness fourteen years later.

The film proves a haunting emotional experience, thanks in large measure to its outstanding cast. Watson, whose transcendent turn in Breaking the Waves is one of the truly great screen performances, brings her remarkable talents to the role of Jackie, capturing the character's na•vete and deep emotionalism, as well as her increasingly willful, petulant, and at times paranoid behavior. Despite Jackie's frequently atrocious insensitivity toward her loved ones, Watson never turns her into a monster. Our distaste for her cruel and self-centered actions is balanced by an underlying empathy and sorrow.

Griffiths (Muriel's Wedding) brings a wistful benevolence to Hilary. Living in Jackie's shadow and frightened of losing her affection, her Hilary exhibits a sense of devotion that borders on masochism. But Hilary's generous spirit and genuinely forgiving nature allow her to succeed in life in ways that elude Jackie.

Also notable in the cast are Morrissey, who makes a strong impression as Kiffer, the only member of the family who refuses to put Jackie on a pedestal, and the young actresses Flanders and Evans. Credit also must go to director Anand Tucker, making his feature directorial debut here, for drawing such amazing performances from his cast.

The scenes of the children on a beach have a particularly dreamlike quality. Bathed in sunlight, they capture a moment of innocence and peace that in life cannot possibly be sustained. That brief moment foreshadows both the beauty and the pain that would characterize the lives of the du Pre sisters throughout their years.

Hilary and Jackie.
Directed by Anand Tucker. Written by Frank Cottrell Boyce. Starring Emily Watson, Rachel Griffiths, and David Morrissey.

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