The sisters' lives were marked by a deep rivalry -- and an even deeper love. As children growing up England, they were inseparable, with the sensitive, supportive Hilary (played as a girl by Keely Flanders), older by two years, always watching out for Jackie (played as a girl by Auriol Evans). Hilary was a talented flutist whose parents doted on her. Told she could not accompany Hilary to music recitals unless she played as well as her sister did, Jackie dove into the cello, practicing day and night. Her prodigious talent soon commanded the attention of both her family and the music world at large.

The rapid rise of Jackie (played as an adult by the exquisite British actress Emily Watson) to international fame took its toll on both sisters. The cellist lacked sufficient emotional preparation for the chaotic life of nonstop touring. Without the love and emotional support of her parents and her sister, Jackie experienced terrible loneliness and a feeling of abandonment. continued on page 64continued from page 63Hilary (Australian actress Rachel Griffiths), her own talent completely ignored in the wake of Jackie's stunning success, grew withdrawn and insecure.

Hilary's self-confidence was partially restored when a young conductor, Kiffer Finzi (David Morrissey), fell in love with her and married her. But instead of being happy for Hilary, Jackie became terribly jealous. Although Jackie married the celebrated young pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim (James Frain), her life continued to be a whirlwind of concert dates and recordings. Increasingly unhappy -- even erratic in her behavior -- she longed for the simple, secure life she saw her sister living.

Buckling under the strain of her hectic life, Jackie eventually suffered a nervous breakdown and retreated to the farm where Hilary and Kiffer lived with their two young daughters. There, the delicate balance of love and rivalry that had characterized the sisters' relationship all their lives was put to the supreme test when Jackie announced that she wanted to sleep with Kiffer.

Based on the book A Genius in the Family, written by Hilary du Pre and her brother Piers (played in the film by Rupert Penry Jones), Hilary and Jackie explores the fragile but durable love that bound the two sisters. It also covers Jackie's battle with multiple sclerosis, which ended her musical career. Diagnosed in 1973 at the age of 28, Jackie succumbed to the illness 14 years later.

The film proves a haunting emotional experience, thanks in large measure to its outstanding cast. Watson, whose transcendent turn in Breaking the Waves is one of the truly great screen performances, brings her remarkable talents to the role of Jackie, capturing the character's naivete and deep emotionalism, as well as her increasingly willful, petulant and at times paranoid behavior. Despite Jackie's frequently atrocious insensitivity toward her loved ones, Watson never turns her into a monster. Our distaste for her cruel and self-centered actions is balanced by an underlying empathy and sorrow.

Griffiths (Muriel's Wedding) brings a wistful benevolence to Hilary. Living in Jackie's shadow and frightened of losing her affection, her Hilary exhibits a sense of devotion that borders on masochism. But Hilary's generous spirit and genuinely forgiving nature allow her to succeed in life in ways that elude Jackie.

Also notable in the cast are Morrissey, who makes a strong impression as Kiffer, the only member of the family who refuses to put Jackie on a pedestal, and the young actresses Flanders and Evans. Credit also must go to director Anand Tucker, making his feature directorial debut here, for drawing such amazing performances from his cast.

The scenes of the children on a beach have a particularly dreamlike quality. Bathed in sunlight, they capture a moment of innocence and peace that cannot possibly be sustained. That brief moment foreshadows both the beauty and the pain that would characterize the lives of the du Pre sisters throughout their years.

Opens Jan. 22 at the Plaza Frontenac.
-- Jean Oppenheimer

Directed by Willard Carroll

Elevate The Jerry Springer Show a notch or two -- in other words, dispense with the one-legged serial killers who are having sex with their blind mothers, and other such nonsense -- and you've got Willard Carroll's Playing by Heart.

Too harsh a judgment, some will say. After all, this well-meaning, relentlessly sincere ensemble drama shoots for no less a goal than understanding the varieties of love in postmodern urban life -- old love, new love, parental love, red-hot love and terminally blue love. Carroll, whose previous directorial credits include last year's children's movie Tom's Midnight Garden and the 1991 monster flick The Runestone, has assembled a large cast in which solid veterans such as Gena Rowlands, Ellen Burstyn and Sean Connery share face time with talented newcomers like Angelina Jolie and Ryan Phillippe. His dialogue is spiced with clever witticisms. And his time-lapse views of Los Angeles, dusk-to-dark-to-dawn in a trice, are beautiful to look at.

But Playing by Heart comes from the same mindset, if you can call it that, that has turned the American airwaves into a raving public confessional while simultaneously transforming the book trade into the province of every brokenhearted Iowa farm wife and reformed Irish drunk who can haul his or her tear-stained memoirs up to an editor's office. It is self-absorbed. It is self-important. It pretends to be high-minded and authentically felt, but it's drenched in the shameless indulgence of the tell-all talk show. It means to reveal "how we live now" but is hamstrung by the greedy ethic of the self-help movement.

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