“Practical? No, of course not. Of course not. But then neither am I, Gillian. Neither am I. I’m not very practical at all.”
Every few years, Australia pumps out a movie that doesn’t just find international success, it launches the career of some had working Aussie actor who’d been plugging away locally for years, or even decades. In 1986, it was Crocodile Dundee and Paul Hogan. In 1994 was The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Guy Pearce. And in 1996, it was Shine and the then unknown Geoffrey Rush. Rush has gone to become a top tier, prestige actor in the years since with three more Oscar nominations after winning one for Shine. Despite all of the hype at the time, I never saw Shine. I think it stank a little too much of Oscar bait. But as Rush continues to be amazing in pretty much everything, I thought I should see where it all started.
Pushed by an overbearing father, an under ten David Helfgott wows audiences at a local piano recital in his small, New South Wales town. Mr Rosen (Nichols Bell) is one of those impressed locals, and a highly regarded piano teacher who offers tuition to smooth David’s rough edges. David’s father and current piano teacher, Pete (Armin Muhller Stahl) is initially offended, but eventually caves in. Cut to teenage Helfgott, now played by Noah Taylor, winning a state competition that includes a scholarship in America. The first of several international opportunities that Peter refuses to let his son accept.
Soon, David befriends local novelist and co-founder of the Communist Party of Australia, Katharine Susannah Prichard (Googie Withers), who gives him the courage to stand up to his father and take a scholarship studying piano in London. Here, he finally builds a life for himself away from his domineering patriarch, but poppa Helfgott’s influence is never far away. Pushing himself to learn Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto, a piece revered by his father, David goes beyond his mental limits and suffers a breakdown. Cut to adult David, now played by Geoffrey Rush, a blathering, incoherent man child.
The biggest surprise I got from Shine was Noah Taylor. Not that his performance was great. This is Noah Taylor after all, he’s been consistently great for decades, since he was a teenager. The surprise was how massive his role was in this movie and how important it was to this movie. Back in ’96, all the hype around Shine was Geoffrey Rush. Rush’s version of Helfgott is on the poster. Rush got the Academy Award. Rush had the Cinderella story for the media to latch onto at the time, as this seemingly out of nowhere middle aged acting genius.
He is amazing in Shine and he deserves all the recognition he got, but I think Taylor should have been right up there with him. Rush gets to play Helfgott at his biggest and broadest, but he only gets to play him at one note, one level, for the entire time he’s on screen. He gets to play him in a way that reminds me of a certain Robert Downey Jr speech in Tropic Thunder.
Noah Taylor, on the other hand, gets a lot more layers to the David Helfgott character to play. He plays Helfgott as the naive, carefree teen, as the young prodigy, as the abused innocent of an overbearing father. Taylor takes Helfgott from doormat, to happy independent, to tortured genius, to tragic victim. From childhood games with his sisters, to the passion playing the legendary Rach 3, to receiving electro shock therapy, Noah Taylor gets all of the heavy lifting in Shine, and never once flinches. And if all of that isn’t enough, he gets just as much, if not more screen time than Geoffrey Rush.