PERFORMER: Emily Watson, Rachel Griffiths, James Frain, David Morrissey, Charles Dance, Celia Imrie, Bill Paterson
Jacqueline du Pré lives: in recordings, in film archives, and through the memory of her work on behalf of those who, like her, are struck down by multiple sclerosis. Last year, in the book A Genius in the Family, her image assumed a new and disturbing form, for this family memoir by her sister Hilary and brother Piers was a portrait scraped clean of the usual hagiographical varnish.
They wanted to destroy the icon which had taken the place of their sister: in telling the truth as they remembered it, they hoped to exorcise their grief and reclaim her for themselves.
Their story was greeted with howls of rage from the musical establishment, and frissons of excitement in the popular media: serialised sections of the book revealed that Hilary had encouraged her husband Kiffer (Christopher Finzi) to sleep with her distraught and incipiently ill sister.
Moreover, that sister emerged as no saint: in the last few years of her life Jacqueline could be vicious, foul-mouthed and impossible to please. Hilary and Piers stood accused of a long list of moral crimes, but their story had clearly caught the public imagination: a film seemed sure to follow. Now it has.
Indeed, Hilary and Jackie was gestating in parallel with the book from the outset. Director Anand Tucker took scrupulous care to warn the siblings what their involvement would mean in emotional terms, and was rewarded with their blessing and the run of their archive.
And he and his colleagues rightly decided that their film would stand or fall on its musical credibility. We would need not only to be persuaded that we were watching the great cellist, we would also need to believe that we were hearing her when she played. In casting Emily Watson (famed for Breaking The Waves) they took a risk on an actress who neither closely resembled du Pré, nor was adept on the cello.
The sound in the film would be created by cellist Caroline Dale, a former Young Musician of the Year section winner who had been initially inspired to take up the instrument by du Pré’s example, and who had known du Pré in her last sad days.
Following in the footsteps of Gary Oldman – who faked Beethoven at the keyboard in Immortal Beloved – Watson took an intensive course of lessons, and spent nine hours a day practising the pieces she would be seen playing. She also sought advice from du Pré’s mentor William Pleeth (‘He told me to study the look in Jackie’s eyes’).
Dale meanwhile was under no illusions about her own duty. ‘I could never compare my playing to Jackie’s. My job was not to let her down. So that when people see the film they believe it’s her – or at least experience the intensity of feeling she put across when she played.’
My surprised verdict is that they probably will. Watson digs into the strings far more convincingly than Emmanuelle Béart did, for example, as the violinist in Un coeur en hiver; and her acting ability lets us believe in the drama. Hilary and Piers have given the film their approval, and it does faithfully reflect their book’s queasy candour.
The period detail is immaculate, as is the musical backdrop: pupils from Chetham’s and schools in Bedfordshire do the honours in the scenes where du Pré is still a tot. Moscow is evoked with the aid of Liverpool’s civic buildings plus computer graphics.
Watson and her colleagues did exhaustive medical research, and the result – as du Pré’s disease encroaches – is hard to watch, but that’s as it should be. Though the photography is frequently beautiful, nothing is falsely prettified. And what of du Pré’s husband Daniel Barenboim? In this film he is impersonated by the young actor James Frain, who is virtually his lookalike.
And here – as in the siblings’ book – Barenboim comes over as entirely sympathetic. It has long been said that the last piece of the jigsaw would not fall into place until he gave his view of events, and Elizabeth Wilson’s new biography Jacqueline du Pré (Weidenfeld) – which has been authorised by him – has therefore been awaited with interest.
In strictly musical terms, no portrait could be more complete: Wilson charts du Pré’s short but productive career in exhaustive detail, from her tutelage with Pleeth via her less happy studies with Tortelier to her blossoming with Rostropovich. We learn what she played, with whom, where, and what the critics said; every recording session gets its blow-by-blow account.
But this biography is in fact a terrible disappointment: as an evocation of Jackie, the siblings’ book is infinitely more effective. Wilson’s unqualified admiration for Barenboim skews her account at every stage: one feels him breathing over her shoulder, desperately exonerating himself from charges of selfishness.
What is worse is the condemnation of the du Pré family – one assumes it must be his – for everything from provincial dowdiness to rank insensitivity (Piers). The real biography of Jacqueline du Pré remains to be written.