Hilary and Jackie (1998): A Hugely Engrossing Film

by Mira

Hilary and Jackie is a powerful film about the tragic life of prodigy cellist Jacqueline du Pré and her relationship with her sister Hilary. No spoilers.

Jacqueline du Pré was born in Oxford, England, in 1945, to a concert pianist mother, Iris (Greep) du Pré and an accountant-editor-teacher father, Derek. Iris, who taught at the Royal Academy of Music in London, turned music into play in the household. At first it was only the mother playing the piano and singing, and then the girls joined in, Hillary with her flute and Jackie with her cello, which she picked up at the age of five, after listening to cello music on the radio. (Allegedly, she exclaimed, “Mummy, I want to make that sound!”)

At eight, Jackie went on to study with William Pleeth. In 1956 she won the Suggia Prize and after that she focused on her cello playing, at the expense of everything else: school, relationships, a normal life. At fifteen she took master classes with Pablo Casals and at sixteen she was ready for her début, with a Stradivarius, in Wigmore Hall in London. It was followed by a performance with the BBC Symphony Orchestra a year later. It was then she played Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor, which in the years to come made her famous in the world of classical music.

After a period of doubting her path in life, Jacqueline du Pré embarked on her career in earnest. In 1965, her performance at Carnegie Hall created a sensation, and her EMI recording of the Elgar concerto -- with London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir John Barbirolli -- created a legend.

Hilary and Jackie (1998) DVD

Hilary & Jackie
$11.63  $6.99

Jacqueline du Pré went on to grow even further as a cellist. At twenty-one she studied with the great Mstislav Rostropovich. Then in 1966 she met conductor Daniel Barenboim at a Christmas party. They married soon thereafter.

Enter Jackie’s personal life. Much of what we know about it comes from a book Hilary wrote after Jackie’s death in 1987. The book is called A Genius in the Family (1998). The movie Hilary and Jackie (1998) is based on it.

Both the book and the movie attracted a fair share of criticism. Most famously, Daniel Barenboim reacted by saying “Couldn’t they have waited until I was dead?”

What that’s about, you will find out in the movie. No spoilers here.

Then Jacqueline du Pré’s career comes to an end. I won’t spoil this bit either because I came to the movie without knowing her story and the ending was so unexpected and incredibly moving, especially with the performances of Emily Watson and Rachel Griffiths as the two sisters.

Hilary and Jackie (1998) On-Demand Video

Hilary and Jackie
Only $14.99

A Few Notes on the Movie

Written as a quick movie review after watching it a while ago. Took out the spoilers.

The main premises of Hilary and Jackie are packaged a bit simplistically (sister rivalry, an ordinary life vs. an extraordinary one) but the film, directed by Anand Tucker, is incredibly powerful.

While there are points of debate about some of the actual circumstances of some of the events depicted, the movie offers some memorable acting on the part of Emily Watson (as Jacqueline du Pré) and Rachel Griffiths (as Hilary du Pré), some good music (including a wonderful performance of Elgar's Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in E minor from Jacqueline du Pré with Daniel Barenboim), and a screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce (based on A Genius in the Family by Hilary du Pré and Piers du Pré) that carries the story along nicely.

Overall, the elements of this movie, while not turning this biopic into a truly exceptional film, do add to a highly engrossing effect, and invite a good deal of reflection about choices we make in life, values we uphold, their toll on our life and others', the extent to which we're willing to help dear ones, and so on.

Books about Jacqueline du Pré, the Musician and the Person

Do note that if you click on the links you will find out major spoilers.

I say watch the movie first.

Jacqueline du Pré: Her Life, Her Music, Her Legend. Scholarly biography by Elizabeth Wilson

Jacqueline Du Pre: Her Life, Her Music, Her Legend
$11.98  $23.99

A Genius in the Family. Controversial memoir by Hilary du Pré and her brother Piers

A Genius in the Family: An Intimate Biography of Jacuelin...
$5.79  $1042.87
Updated: 12/31/2020, Mira
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Mira on 11/29/2016

Thank you for mentioning Pinchas Zukerman. I had never heard of him. Maybe he'll come play in one of the Enescu festivals.

DerdriuMarriner on 11/29/2016

Mira, Very nice! One of my favorite recordings is Beethoven's 70th, with Daniel Barenboim on piano, Jacqueline du Pré on cello and Pinchas Zukerman (!) on violin.

Mira on 02/18/2014

I think what's also very sad is that, although so gifted, she seemed to make life very hard on herself and others. I'll have to watch it again. As you say, the film reveals so much about what I imagine is the life of many prodigies. I think that's where another big sadness lies, in not appreciating the gifts of life, starting with those close to you; couple that with the fulgurance (if that's a word) of her life and you're left wondering where the meaning of a life, of all lives is, and how one should deal with the gifts one receives.

Mira on 02/18/2014

I think it's worth watching. You may know the storyline, but there are many details there which invite reflection. It's very sad, though.

Mira on 04/15/2013

That's right. No one told me about it either. I just came across it at the British Council Library and thought it looked interesting. And then I was blown away.

thegoodvillager on 04/15/2013

Exciting - I've never heard anyone talk about this film (I happened across it by accident years ago), but the two leads are among my favourite actresses. Such a well-done film. I think I need to watch it again in the near future.

Mira on 03/10/2013

Thank you, Brenda. It's such a powerful film: haunting, even. It has moved me in so many ways.

BrendaReeves on 03/10/2013

Okay, now you've got me really curious. I have to watch this. Great review.

Mira on 02/11/2013

It took me completely by surprise when I saw it. They did a good job with the movie.

sheilamarie on 02/10/2013

I've heard about this film, but haven't seen it yet. It's on my list.

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