Key metaphoric, stylistic and technical devices are evident in the opening sequence of Arnand Tucker’s film, Hilary and Jackie (1998), a narrative about the Du Prė sisters, Hilary (Rachel Griffiths) and Jackie (Emily Watson). Bingham reminds us that biographical films need subjects with extraordinary lives. Jackie is famous for her musical talent; Hilary, for her keen writer’s eye. The movie is a critical investigation, a feminist appropriation of the classical biographical genre.
The key metaphoric device of the opening sequence is the conch shell, an image about women’s sexuality. A submerged shell is drawn out of a pool of water by a small hand. Then camera swoops away from two girls beside a small pool and circles with dizzying speed to a high-angled extreme long shot to image the girls as the two vulva folds on either side of the pool of water. Then we see the young Jackie using the conch shell as a telephone, taking a message which she whispers to her sister, making visible us to the the second metaphor of the opening sequence: the whisper.
The sequence initially begins with a whisper of sound: the whisper of waves, then the whisper of an orchestra tuning up, then the whisper of a single ascending melodic line played on the cello. Later, Jackie whispers a message she received from a mysterious silhouetted woman at the edge of the sand. Also, the sequence is framed as a mysterious whisper as the girls run over the sand dunes speaking W.J. Turner’s poem, “Romance”. Hilary has Jackie’s hand and they are about to enter the “golden land” (of sound for them) that Turner refers to in his poem.
A key stylistic device in this movie is the use of classical music: Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor, Jackie’s signature piece. As well, original music by Barrington Pheloung mixes the flute and the cello, bring to the foreground the instrument that each of them plays when the focus is on their story.
A key stylistic device is Tucker’s use of the swooping camera. In the opening sequence the girls run through the golden wet sand, slide down sand dunes on their knees, run through high golden grasses, move toward the horizon, run away from the viewer, and finally hug each other in a long, tight embrace. At this moment Tucker makes use again of an “excessively mobile camera ... to dramatise visually static material” a device he will also use again during the body of the film (Bruzzi 32). But for now Hilary and Jackie stand still, clinging to each other, the camera spinning the horizon around the girls at a dizzying pace.
A second of Tucker’s technical devices is the long dissolve, a technique he uses to bind the women together. In shot 4, Hilary and Jackie leave the pool of water to run toward the edge of the ocean. At the same time, there is a 7-second shot of the two girls with their own arms cross at the wrist and clasping each other’s hands. They are spinning in a circle. The two shots are mixed for 3 seconds, an overlay of both images underscoring their separateness and their inseparability.
I go to see biography because I am interested in the knowability of the subjects. The deep love the young sisters have for each other is dramatized in the opening sequence, the nature of their love revealed through the metaphors of a conch shell, a whisper and a golden land.
Bruzzi, Stella. “Butterfly on the Wall: Is the New Jacqueline De Prė Biopic Typical of British Documentary Fiction, Asks Stella Bruzzi”. Sight and Sound 9:1 (January 1999) 23-34.