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Piano forte

Genius Is a tricky subject for those of less-than-Olympian talents to approach, and even some fairly satisfying films about staggeringly gifted artists, such as Lust for Life, have tended to drift unstoppably in the direction of camp. Scapegoat of uncaring burghers, splenetic erotomane, prophet without honour, doomed youth, out-and-out loony: such are the stock types of brilliance who strut, fret, cut off appendages and generally waste their perfume on the desert air.

Which is one reason why Scott Hicks's Shine (12), a biopic of the Australian pianist David Helfgott - still alive, well, and performing on the soundtrack - is so delightful. Though they leap exuberantly into each of those available pools of middlebrow sentimentality, Hicks and his screenwriter Jan Sardi have added enough originality to each Genius Is Agony cliche to leave the viewer feeling that there has been no lasting insult to the brain. Helfgott, a former child prodigy who suffered a terrible mental breakdown just as his career was about to soar, is indeed shown as something of a victim, yet in the long run he's as much an object of people's kindness as their cruelty. He's pretty bonkers, but this condition is plainly not a case of great wits being sure to madness near allied. And, yes, Helfgott was very much the archetypal blighted youth, but middle age, luck and undamaged talent brought him to an unforeseen redemption.

Hicks's film shuttles smoothly back and forth in time, depicting Helfgott as a child (played by Alex Rafalowicz), youth (Noah Taylor) and grown- up loser (Geoffrey Rush). It begins with the adult David - a shambolic wreck, not long since released from an asylum - caught in profile, chain- smoking and giving vent to a jittery stream of logorrhoea, packed with internal rhymes, wonky idea-associations and other manifestations of synaptic pinball. Whether Rush is adhering to Sardi's script, or just improvising all these whirling words, it's an impressive feat - funny, eerie and, aptly, tending towards the condition of music. A few scenes later, we skip back 40-odd years to uncover the primary root of David's distress: his father Peter (Armin Mueller-Stahl), glowering at him from the audience at a junior piano competition. Dad is about to give him chilly hell for losing.

It's in the treatment of Helfgott Sr that Shine's distinctiveness starts to become fully apparent. Where less thoughtful films might have portrayed David's father as a penny-plain domestic tyrant, Hicks and Mueller-Stahl view him with careful respect. Though his ambition for David to dazzle at the piano may come from a sense of having been thwarted as a violinist in his own childhood, it's clear that excessive love, rather than parental resentment is really what's prompting him to crush and goad the boy so mercilessly. "Music will always be your friend," he murmurs sweetly to David in one rare moment of intimacy. "In the end, everyone else will let you down." And the film frequently refers in passing to the European atrocities which made Peter Helfgott think this way, in an understated reminder that the sufferings of the Holocaust didn't end when the Allies opened up the camps.

That sombre note sounded, Shine can move briskly on to other tones, spanning sublimity (David's increasingly inspired playing) and ridiculousness (David's adolescent flailings). Noah Taylor is terrific as David the teenager, a hopeless ugly ducking - so detached from his body that he can absent- mindedly venture out naked from the navel down - who sprouts metaphorical swan's wings when he sits at a keyboard. Egged on by one kindly elder, a famous writer (Googie Withers), David manages to rebel against his father and takes up a scholarship at the Royal College of Music, where he is groomed for greatness by another kindly elder, Cecil Parkes (Sir John Gielgud, great fun in the role).

The climax of this middle section of the film is also its biggest coup. David, still clinging to the dim possibility of regaining his father's love, decides to compete for the RCM's championship with a piece of fiendish difficulty by Rachmaninov. Hicks begins the sequence in routinely grand style, with lashings of swooping camera pans and cascading fingertips - then he has the audacity to cut the soundtrack music completely, replacing it with the clacking of nails on ivory and with David's laboured respiration and pulse, edging in for tighter and tighter close-ups on the sweat-drenched surface of the boy's face. (His brilliance is making him literally shine.) Only as the piece concludes does the music flood back, followed by fervent applause which gives David no satisfaction. He's keeled over, unconscious of victory, ripe for electric-shock treatment.

The plot of Shine's third and final movement might strain one's goodwill to snapping point were it not largely based on fact. It won't spoil your pleasure to know the basics: after lost years in institutions, David finally blunders into a gig at a nightclub, becomes a success, wins the love of a good woman (Lynn Redgrave) and, eventually, returns in triumph to the concert hall. Hicks makes it plain that Helfgott's still a babbler, a random squeezer of ladies' breasts and a nightmarish house guest. But where so many tales of blighted creativity carry some covertly philistine insinuations about art, Shine insists gleefully that music is the bulwark of Helfgott's sanity as well as his everyday ecstasy. Nowhere is the glee more evident than in the spectacle of David, half-naked under his raincoat, bouncing up and down on a trampoline while listening to a Walkman. His body may be gauche and flailing, but his head has been raptured up to heaven. Against the odds, Shine is a movie to make you feel good about feelgood movies.

Until some hard-working US journalists began to cast doubts on its authenticity, the week's other big release, Sleepers (15), was also supposed to be based on a true story - the autobiographical tale of abuse, revenge and conspiracy told by Lorenzo Carcaterra in his book of the same name. But most cinema- goers won't give a hoot whether its actions were the work of God or the imagination of Carcaterra, since it's over-long, under-interesting and seldom much more than professional in execution. In the protracted first half, a quartet of boys, growing up in an idyllic Mean Streets milieu of gangsterish priests (notably Robert De Niro) and priestly gangsters, accidentally kill a man and are sent to reform school, where they are systematically raped and tortured by Kevin Bacon. In the second half, two of the now-adult foursome murder Bacon; the other two (Brad Pitt and Jason Patric) scheme to get them off. Martin Scorsese might have made something of this stuff; Barry Levinson hasn't. No genius, alas.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 10.