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Viewer Guide: “Shine” and “Hector”

September 20, 2021 | Richard Peña


Shine (1996)

This week’s classic is Shine, the 1996 biographical drama based on the life of Australian concert pianist David Helfgott, directed by Scott Hicks.

Opening on a rainy night in Perth, Australia, sometime in the late 1970s, a semi-incoherent man pleads to be admitted into a restaurant afterhours. The bemused staff assumes he must be lost or homeless, but little do they realize that the rain-drenched, babbling man is in fact David Helfgott—portrayed by Geoffrey Rush in an Oscar-winning performance—the once acclaimed piano prodigy whose nervous breakdown in his early 20s has led to years in mental institutions. Flashing back to Helfgott’s childhood, the film dramatizes his turbulent relationship with his father Peter, played by Armin Mueller-Stahl, a Holocaust survivor who projects his thwarted ambition to be a world class concert violinist onto his talented son. Reluctantly allowing David to receive the piano training he can no longer provide, Peter keeps a close eye on his progress, fiercely coaching David to always succeed, yet simultaneously denying him prestigious opportunities. The tortured father-son relationship finally reaches a crescendo when David accepts a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London, a development met with Peter’s violent disapproval. Finally on his own, David attempts to scale the heights of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3—an all-consuming effort that precipitates his disastrous fall. After flying this close to the sun, can there ever be a way back into the light?

Sharing the role of David in his childhood and adolescent years are Alex Rafalowicz and Noah Taylor. Also featured are John Gielgud as David’s mentor at the Royal College of Music, with Lynn Redgrave Helfgott’s wife Gillian.

Providing a career-making showcase role for Australian actor Geoffrey Rush, Shine was a critical and box office hit, garnering seven Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actor for Armin Mueller-Stahl, with Rush taking home the year’s statuette for Best Actor. However, the film was also met with criticism from some members of Helfgott’s own family, including his sister Margaret, who objected to the cinematic depiction of their father Peter Helfgott as greatly exaggerated—charges subsequently denied by director Scott Hicks. With the success of the film, David Helfgott resumed an international concert career in 1997, but sadly his performances received a mixed critical reaction. Nonetheless, Helfgott continues to perform when possible in Australia and Europe.


Hector (2015)

This week’s indie is Hector, a slice of life drama from 2015 marking the feature film debut of writer-director Jake Gavin.

Peter Mullan stars in the title role as Hector McAdam, a weather-beaten but rational seeming older man whom we first observe washing up in a public restroom. However, it soon becomes clear that Hector is homeless, and has been living invisibly for some 15 years on the fringes of the British motorway system. Currently outside Glasgow, Scotland, Hector has banded together with another older man and a younger woman to form a transient family unit; however, with Christmas approaching, Hector’s thoughts are returning to his actual biological family for reasons that gradually become clearer. After receiving unspecified medical tests, Hector hitchhikes south to London for his annual stay at a Christmas relief shelter, and begins his tentative attempts to contact a sister and brother who assume that he is dead after his years-long unexplained absence. For try as he might, Hector can’t outrun his past to escape a personal tragedy that continues to haunt him.

Writer-director Jake Gavin was inspired to write his script for Hector after volunteering at a London homeless organization, where he encountered a homeless man who traveled to the shelter each Christmas from Scotland. From there, Gavin fleshed out a back story for his fictional character of Hector, seeking to put a human face on a population that is generally shunned by most of society. Hector recalls the socially conscious dramas of British indie filmmaker Ken Loach, with whom star Peter Mullan has in fact worked; other recent projects for Mullan include roles in The Underground Railroad, Westworld and Ozark. PBS viewers may also recognize Stephen Tompkinson from his title role in the DCI Banks detective series, as well as Gina McKee from the Masterpiece miniseries The Forsyte Saga.

Richard Peña is a Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University, where he specializes in film theory and international cinema.

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