Hilary and Jackie is based on the book by Hilary du Pre recounting the story of her life and that of her sister, the cellist Jacqueline. As young children the sisters were very close; their emotional bond is described as so close that they claimed telepathic powers between them.
Hilary, the elder sister was a flautist. In her achievement of early success and recognition, rivalry between the sisters began to erode the blissful relationship of their early childhood together. Jacqueline, after a triumph of her own, became neurotically obsessed with her music. It became the method by which she sought the approval and love that, in her mind had shifted in favor of her sister. Jacqueline turned out to be the greater musical talent and found an enormously successful career on world concert stages, as Hilary found love, married, and had children.
Jacqueline’s damaged ego, her sad and unresolved neurosis, left her unhappy despite her professional success and marriage to pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim. At one point, she ran off from her husband and her busy concert schedule to the farm where Hilary and her family lived, and where, the film suggests, she briefly found a modicum of happiness, but clearly under extraordinarily untenable circumstances.
If the film had followed a purely chronological account, from this point on we would have a long painful denouement as Jacqueline grows ever more unhappy and then is stricken with multiple sclerosis which ended her career and ultimately her life at age 42. In an attempt to overcome the somewhat less than perfectly dramatically structured facts of life, the film retraces a portion of the story, telling it from Jackie’s point of view, adding a degree of interest and depth in contrasting the perceptions previously shared from Hilary’s vantage.
This is a beautifully made, finely acted film, with many perceptive touches. When Jackie’s teacher presents her with a gift from an anonymous donor of one of the great cellos, he says, "It will give you the world, Jackie, but you must give it yourself." And, of course, she did have the world, she did give herself to the instrument, but nonetheless, never found genuine or lasting happiness. On two different occasions, she attempts by willful negligence to destroy the instrument which is the tool of her success, but not of her salvation.
The film is honest in showing how Jackie’s neurotic behaviors made her a difficult and demanding wife and sister. The remarkable performance by Emily Watson, perhaps, is what allows the character to sustain our sympathy even as we shudder at the selfishness and insensitivity to which she subjects those around her.
The music of the du Pre’s lives and careers is integrated nicely into the telling of the their story, but, frankly, left this viewer wishing he were hearing the works themselves in full. And while Jackie, as an adult, is shown playing music to great acclaim, the film never suggests that she took any pleasure at all from the music itself. Hard to believe that is true. The film is a profoundly sad one. I found that, in the end, it was depressing rather than uplifting; it does not offer catharsis – that relief or discharge of the sadness that would arise out of new understanding or insight.