Actors Sharp, Film Flat

Either way, there's something a bit condescending in this view of David. It turns his suffering and redemption into a species of child's play. His art, and his misery, are reduced to a kind of quirky fabled quaintness -- much as Glenn Gould's was in that overrated art-house rave of a few years back, Thirty-two Short Pieces About Glenn Gould.

It's significant that the reasons for David's breakdown are laid at his father's feet -- even though the split between the valiant introvert that David was and the screw-loose jabberer he becomes is so decisive that some sort of neurological explanation is probably a lot closer to the truth. But physiology doesn't play as well as Freud in these romances. And so David's condition and treatment are made fuzzy throughout. So is his recovery via music. He doesn't even really need to practice. None of those boring scales and arpeggios for him -- that might put a damper on the "mystery" of it all. His genius, which as a boy appeared to arrive complete, returns again fully formed.

Hicks has a rather middlebrow take on David's genius. The pieces we hear him pound out are mostly grand-scale show stoppers, such as the Rachmaninoff, or tricky finger exercises, such as "The Flight of the Bumblebee." The real Helfgott, on the soundtrack, is impressively dexterous in his renditions, but he isn't given much chance to play softly and lyrically -- just a few swabs of Chopin here and there. But people who think great piano playing is fancy-fingered mile-a-minute stuff will get the message: This guy's a genius. (By this standard so was Liberace.)

There are some impressive performances in Shine. All three Davids are superb, and they match up. Geoffrey Rush, celebrated in Australia for his stage work, gives a tricky, propulsive rendition of David's manic joyousness. (He also bears an uncanny resemblance to James Woods.) Nicholas Bell is remarkably good as David's first piano tutor; John Gielgud, as David's tutor in London, is imperious and large-souled -- he's the Good Father to Peter's Bad Father. Googie Withers, as the elderly woman who befriends David in Australia, is a plush matron whose passing represents the film's most delicately sad moment. Lynn Redgrave makes her character's dawning, bewildered love for David seem like a revelation.

Performers such as these help tone up the proceedings. They root the movie in human feeling even when the filmmakers are trying to snow us. But snow may be what audiences want from Shine. The audience that once cooed over the romantic malaise in Five Easy Pieces may have found a sunny Nineties substitute. The ga-ga uplift in Shine knocks the malaise right out of your head -- along with just about everything else.

Written by Jan Sardi; directed by Scott Hicks; with Geoffrey Rush, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Googie Withers, Lynn Redgrave, John Gielgud, Alex Rafalowicz, Noah Taylor, and Nicholas Bell.

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