Robin Buss reviews two very different new films with the common theme of exceptionally talented children. There would be a touch of optimism in starting the year with two films about child prodigy, if it were not that both Matilda and Shine - however different in other respects - suggest that few families are capable of dealing with the phenomenon and that the best way to survive exeptional early talent is probably to be an orphan.
Matilda's family is a caricature of the affluent working-class - vulgar, commercial and savagely anti-intellectual. Her father, a dodgy used-car salesman, likes to slump in front of the television game shows, tears up Matilda's copy of Moby-Dick because the title makes him think it's a dirty book, and agrees to send her to school only when he has found one where the discipline is harsh enough.
Under its redoubtable head, Miss Trunchbull, Crunchemhall is an even more extreme caricature of a child-hating institution, from which Matilda is saved by the intervention of the delightful Miss Honey and the use of her own supernatural telekinetic powers.
Children like Roald Dahl because he panders to their prejudices. He agrees that parents and siblings don't appreciate them, that most teachers and other authority figures are sadists who loathe children, and that old people, especially old women, are morally as well as physically repulsive. Danny DeVito, whose first film as a director was Throw Momma from the Train, catches the spirit of this better than any previous adapter, both in the family scenes, where he plays the outrageous father, and in the school, where a rear view of Miss Trunchbull's calf muscles is enough to persuade us of her malignant power.
To turn from Matilda to Shine is to go from cruel fantasy to humane reality. This is the story of Australian pianist David Helfgott, a child prodigy whose talent was jealously nurtured by his domineering and possessive father, Peter, who seems a villain worthy of Dahl, until we realise that Scott Hicks's film is as interested in exploring the source of Peter's unhappiness as in evoking our sympathy for his son.
In many ways, Peter typifies the parent of a gifted child, anxious to realise his own frustrated ambitions, eager to see David succeed, afraid to let him go. Only obliquely do we also learn that Peter is a survivor of the Holocaust, who lost his own family in the camps.
David meets several Miss Honeys along the way who support him as he makes the break with the family; but, unlike Matilda, he does not emerge unscathed into a fairyland of china dolls and bedtime stories. The adolescent prodigy (played by Noah Taylor as an awkward, totally impractical child, though transformed as soon as his fingers touch the keyboard), studies in London at the Royal College of Music, where he triumphs with a performance of Rachmaninov's Third Piano Concerto, before suffering a mental breakdown.
Back in Australia, he lives in a home where he is forbidden to touch a piano, barely able to look after himself and discoursing at great speed and only half-comprehensively, in a mixture of puns and wild verbal associations - a marvellous performance by Geoffrey Rush.
In the end, it is music that saves him. He wanders into a downtown restaurant after hours, is befriended by the proprietor, and eventually sits down at the the piano. From then, everything starts to go right, even though in most respects David remains very eccentric, largely dependent on the help and tolerance of others. The real happy ending, in a moving and unsentimental film, comes in the end credits, which inform us that the soundtrack music was mainly performed by David Helfgott himself.
The cinema had long been fascinated by artistic genius, especially when linked to themes of madness and destruction - I Shot Andy Warhol and Surviving Picasso have both recently been released. Shine is outstanding for its honesty about the whole subject. It never suggests that Helfgott's illness is a corollary of his musical talent, or that precocity is either an unmitigated disaster or an unmixed blessing: the music attracts the pressures that eventually topple him, but also gives him the strength to pull back.
Above all, the film resists the temptation to show him as the victim of grotesque exploitation. Most of us, it says, are decent, kindly people who can help one another to survive - a simple message, but not a bad one to take into the New Year.