Medicine And The Media

Mental illness as metaphor, yet again

BMJ 1997; 314 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.314.7074.153 (Published 11 January 1997) Cite this as: BMJ 1997;314:153
  1. Simon Wessely
  1. academic department of psychological medicine, King's College School of Medicine and Dentistry, London

    Shine On general release

    Shine is the apparently true story of David Helfgott, a child prodigy pianist whose career came to an abrupt halt when he developed a severe mental illness. After many years lost in the world of asylums, he was rescued by the love of a woman and is once again performing to ecstatic Australian audiences. Scott Hicks, previously known for his documentaries, has produced a feature film of Helfgott's life that has been wooing critics and audiences alike and-because it combines a difficult subject (mental illness), a great sound track (Rachmaninov), and a feel good ending-is apparently a “dead cert” for an Oscar.

    I hated it.

    Granted, the film is a tour de force in many respects. The casting is impressive- the film uses three actors to play David as a youth, adolescent, and adult, but you become aware of that only in the credits. It has two masterly emotional climaxes-the first when David produces a definitive Rachmaninov Third Piano Concerto to win the gold medal at the Royal College of Music and the second when, as a shambling incoherent wreck, he sits down at the piano in an Adelaide restaurant and produces an elegant Flight of the Bumble Bee, proving he still “has it.”

    Shine does, however, repeat two errors common in films about mental illness. The first is that mentally ill people are more sane than the rest of us. A classic French film showed the inhabitants of an asylum briefly liberated as part of the turmoil of war, viewing the lethal antics of the rest of the world, and finally retreating back to the asylum and closing the door on the insane world outside. The tradition of the “holy fool” is maintained in Shine, in which the adult David's speech, seemingly a nonsensical mishmash of puns and flights of ideas, actually contains frequent poetic insights.

    Figure1

    David Helfgott' talent shines through.

    buena vista.

    The second failing is that mental illness must have both a meaning and a cause. In Shine the roots of David's breakdown are laid firmly at the door of his father, an awesome performance by Armin Mueller-Stahl. The script comes straight from all those 1960s books on the schizophrenogenic family, replete with double binds, harsh discipline, overprotection, excessive love, and impossible expectations. However, in a series of unsubtle references to the Holocaust (an early glimpse shows him looking through a strand of barbed wire in his Adelaide garden) we are also made to see the father as victim. Brilliant, but is it true? Helfgott senior is now dead and unable to defend his reputation, but his daughter (David's sister) has been protesting to the Australian press that their father is cruelly maligned by the film. One of the pivotal scenes of the film is the father's apparently callous refusal to allow his son to study in America. Yet when David defies his father to go to England the result is indeed disaster and breakdown. Perhaps Helfgott senior's advice was based on a realistic assessment of the risk to his son's mental health from prolonged separation We don't know, but in any film of a “true” story we must be aware this is only one version of many “truths.”

    Similarly, it is never clear what is wrong with David. His breakdown-in which Rach 3 is followed by ECT 1-looks like a psychosis, but, notwithstanding the parody of manic speech, no manic person could play a restrained version of Flight of the Bumble Bee. Instead, we are treated to a vision of the mentally ill as amiable harmless buffoons, a source of innocent merriment-a version of reality that is both inaccurate and patronising. I wonder what David Crook, who is credited as psychiatric advisor, did for his money. The ending is likewise incredible. David, destroyed by the tyrannical love of his father, is redeemed in the space of a long weekend by the selfless love of astrologist Lynn Redgrave, who draws up a computerised astrological chart that predicts their wedding. The credits thank the future Mrs Helfgott for script assistance, but when you also see the credit to the astrological software consultant the line between fantasy and reality is blurred indeed.

    Alan Coren once pointed out that the British bought books on only three subjects-sport, animals, and the War. He therefore wrote Golfing for Cats complete with a swastika on the dust jacket. Films that combine genius, the Holocaust, dysfunctional families, romantic music, nail-biting competitions, mental illness, and a happy ending are likewise bound to succeed. Shine is a brilliantly placed product but tells us little about art or mental illness. Sometimes mental illness has no meaning and is not a metaphor-it is just illness.

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