“Shine’s” depiction of David Helfgott’s passionate pursuit and achievement of success as a pianist in spite of his severe mental challenges sends an uplifting message that continues to resonate among people on the autism spectrum in today’s environment where employers are increasingly targeting them as job candidates because of their specialized skills.
By Nils Skudra
On a recent occasion I set aside time to once again watch the 1996 film Shine, a beautiful biographical drama that I have viewed countless times. Shine depicts the life of Australian pianist David Helfgott from his formative years as a gifted child prodigy through his struggle with mental illness and his ultimate comeback to the music scene. Having watched this film many times before, I felt that it would be worthwhile to see it again with a focus on determining whether Helfgott’s particular behaviors fall within the range of the autism spectrum and whether the film adequately captures that diagnosis for the audience’s enlightenment.
At the film’s opening, the middle-aged David (portrayed by Geoffrey Rush in a Golden Globe- and Oscar-winning performance) is featured making rambling statements marked by repetitive patterns (he consistently utters the phrase “It’s a mystery, it’s a mystery”). He is lost out in the rain when he comes upon a diner which has just closed for the evening, and he repeatedly knocks on the window and the door for assistance. When some of the staff finally let David inside, he displays a lack of inhibition with regard to touching other people, eagerly hugging them without asking permission although he is rebuffed by the grouchy owner. When he is asked about his predicament, David talks manically and without much apparent sense, trying to convey that he is lost, throwing in statements like “If you misbehave, you’re going to be punished for the rest of your life.” While being driven back home by Sylvia, a kind server from the diner, David explains the meaning of his surname, which means “Help of God” in Yiddish, stating that his grandfather was “very religious, but he got exterminated, so God didn’t help him” and then laughs uproariously and nervously although this is clearly not an appropriate subject for one’s sense of humor.
We subsequently see David’s formative years depicted through flashbacks beginning with his childhood, in which he is portrayed by Alex Rafalowicz. The young David is first seen walking towards the stage at a school piano competition, repeating “I’m going to win” to himself. When David is asked what he will play, his father Peter Helfgott (portrayed by Armin Mueller-Stahl) stands up from his seat in the audience and shouts “Chopin, the Polonaise!” David then proceeds to play the piece and, to the astonishment of the concert judges, displays a remarkable mastery of Chopin despite his tender age. When Peter notices the piano rolling backward, forcing David to lean forward, he runs toward the stage in panic but is stopped by one of the judges who praises David’s unique genius, to which Peter quietly but proudly states, “He is my son.”
When David and Peter return home from the competition, which David did not win, we learn that Peter, a Jewish immigrant from Poland, was denied the gift of learning music by his own father, who destroyed a violin that Peter had saved up money for as a child. Consequently, he has taught David and daughters Margaret and Susie to play the piano, so that they might have what was not given to him, but is very demanding that David succeed in fulfilling the dream that Peter could not pursue himself, emphatically stating, “Always *win*.” He then puts on a record of the Rachmaninoff No.3 but is interrupted by the arrival of Ben Rosen, a judge from the competition, who presents a prize for David, remarking that very few people summon the courage to tackle the Polonaise. Mr. Rosen offers to give David piano lessons but is rebuffed by Peter, who puts the prize in his pocket and insists that only *he* teaches David, shutting the door in Rosen’s face. That night, Peter overhears David playing a portion of the Rachmaninoff No.3 and sits beside his son, telling him “One day you will play it and you will make me so proud!” He is then convinced that Mr. Rosen is the right person to teach David this extremely difficult concerto and promptly takes him to Rosen’s house the next day, stating that he knows the Rach No.3 is the right piece for David, but Mr. Rosen insists that he will decide what piano music is best for David to start with and shuts his door in Peter’s face after taking David inside.
The film then proceeds to David’s adolescent years (portrayed by Noah Taylor). Having just won another competition after years of training with Mr. Rosen, David is offered the opportunity to study music in the United States, a prospect which his parents are deeply ambivalent over due to their low income and belief that David is not yet ready to live on his own. Although Peter initially encourages David to be strong in order to survive in America, he is troubled by the pretentiousness of well-to-do socialites who refer to David as “our very own David” when they ask him to perform at a party, leaving him with the impression that others are seeking to take David away from him. During a conversation with his wife Rachel, he says of Mr. Rosen: “Has he suffered? Not a day in his life. Does he know about families? Does he know about… how your sisters died, and my mother and father?” It is revealed from this exchange that Peter and Rachel are survivors of the Holocaust, which has left an indelible mark on Peter in particular. This experience not only adds another layer to Peter’s early determination for David to thrive as a pianist, but it also uncovers a deeper reason at the heart of his reluctance to let David go to America: He is fearful that his family will be destroyed by David’s departure, just as Peter’s parents were taken from him by the Nazis. Consequently, he becomes increasingly domineering and obstructive of David’s opportunities to live and study abroad, burning a letter from an American family offering their home for David to stay in and furiously states, “I know what’s best, because I’m your father. I’m your father, and this is your family!”
David gravitates toward the adoring company of Katherine Prichard (portrayed by Googie Withers), a prominent author who relates her experiences of how she endeavored to get her father’s attention as a child. When David reveals that he has been given a scholarship to attend the Royal College of Music in London, Katherine encourages him to pursue his dream in spite of Peter’s controlling nature. Upon returning home that evening, David is confronted by his father who subsequently beats him for his seeming ingratitude and prompts a panicked intervention from Rachel and the daughters. When David insists, “I’m old enough to make up my own mind,” Peter desperately tells him: “If you walk out that door, you will never be welcomed back into this house. You will never be anybody’s son. The girls will lose a brother. If you go, you will be *punished*… for the rest of your life.” In spite of his father’s warning, David leaves for London, resulting in his disownment from the family.
As a student at the Royal College of Music, David practices under the tutelage of eccentric Prof. Cecil Parks (portrayed by the acclaimed British actor John Gielgud), who constantly encourages David to aggressively practice the Rach No.3 in preparation for the upcoming school concert. It is during this period that David begins exhibiting signs of the peculiar behavior depicted at the film’s opening, not only narrating his correspondence in rambling sentences but also eating cat food and at one point walking up the stairs without any pants or underwear on. When researching David’s life online, I found his early signs of mental illness identified as schizoaffective disorder, but the case could be made that they also fall within the range of autism in some ways since the speech of many autistic individuals is often characterized by slurring, stuttering or repetitive statements and since some tend to engage in habits that deviate from “normal” behavior in a very striking manner. David’s mental decline reaches the breaking point just after he delivers a masterful rendition of the Rach No.3 at the school concert when, sweating profusely and overwhelmed by all the constant pressure, he collapses and hits his head on the stage, resulting in his subsequent hospitalization and electroshock treatment.
The film then shifts to the middle-aged David’s period of living in a psychiatric hospital and his triumphant comeback. During the time that we see him in psychiatric care, we are exposed to more of his behavioral traits which may be considered autistic as well as schizoaffective proclivities. When he is visited by his sister Susie, he not only has difficulty remembering her but fails to make eye contact as he rambles, leaving Susie uncomfortably cognizant that she cannot have a normal conversation with him. In addition, he frequently talks to himself in the presence of other people (at one point doing so while submerged in a water-filled bathtub) and is oblivious to whether they are interested in what he is saying. Nonetheless, David still exhibits his astounding mastery of the piano, practicing loudly in his apartment (to which he relocates after meeting a church pianist who remembers him from the competitions he won as an adolescent) to the irritation of neighbors who shout for him to be quiet. This leads him to reemerge in the public eye after performing Flight of the Bumblebee at the diner he strayed upon, and eventually he finds a romantic partner in the person of astrologer Gillian Murray (portrayed by Lynn Redgrave), who marries him after being convinced by her Zodiac that he is the right man for her.
While Rush delivers a phenomenal performance in the lead role, Shine is definitely not without a number of significant flaws. Not only has the film been criticized for its portrayal of Peter Helfgott as a domineering tyrant – following the film’s release David’s sister Margaret insisted that their father was in fact a loving and affectionate parent whose objection to David’s departure was based on a heartfelt concern about his son’s ability to live independently at that point in time – but it also fails to expressly identify the specific diagnosis which would explain David’s neurotic symptoms. In an interview the director Scott Hicks stated that he chose quite deliberately not to delve into the clinical details of David’s condition since he did not want Shine to be a film about mental illness but rather one about acceptance and the ability of a severely challenged individual to triumph in the face of adversity. While this decision may have been well-intentioned, I would argue that it is in fact a major failing of the film since the lack of a specific psychiatric identification leaves audiences wondering about the nature of David’s diagnosis. In real life, David Helfgott is given extensive medication and care by his wife Gillian, who has stated that she’s been told he has Asperger’s Syndrome but may have a host of other neurological conditions.
In summation, Shine projects a beautiful and moving but deeply flawed portrayal of David Helfgott’s lapse into mental illness and his triumphant return to stardom. Although Geoffrey Rush conveys a very sensitive portrayal of the protagonist, capturing both Helfgott’s neurotic tendencies and profound emotional depth, the film’s failure to delve into the precise clinical specifics of his condition is a significant drawback which may lead viewers who are unfamiliar with autism or schizophrenia to think “He’s just mentally ill” without the benefit of an informed neurological insight. Consequently, Shine projects an inadequate depiction of what might reasonably be considered to fall within the range of the autism spectrum. Nonetheless, the film’s depiction of David Helfgott’s passionate pursuit and achievement of success as a pianist in spite of his severe mental challenges sends an uplifting message that continues to resonate among people on the autism spectrum in today’s environment where employers are increasingly targeting them as job candidates because of their specialized skills. Furthermore, the conclusions that some might draw from this film about David’s diagnosis – that he is both autistic and schizophrenic – could potentially inspire further professional investigation into the likelihood of individuals on the spectrum having more than one neurological condition, how they cope with that multiplicity, and the different ways in which they achieve academic and/or professional success.
I am an artist on the autism spectrum. I received an MA specializing in Civil War/Reconstruction history at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and I have been drawing hundreds of Civil War-themed pictures since the age of five and a half. As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, I have a very focused set of interests, and the Civil War is my favorite historical event within that range of interests. It is therefore my fervent desire to become a Civil War historian and have my Civil War artwork published in an art book for children. I am also very involved in the autism community and currently serve as the President/Head Officer of Spectrum at UNCG, an organization I founded for students on the autism spectrum. The goal of the organization is to promote autism awareness and foster an inclusive community for autistic students on the UNCG campus. The group has attracted some local publicity and is steadily gaining new members, and we shall be hosting autism panels for classes on campus in the near future.