Philosophy and Film - Return to Main Page



CHARACTERS: Jacqueline du Pré (Emily Watson, famous cellist), Hilary du Pré (Jackie’s sister, flutist), Daniel Barenboim (Jackie’s husband), Kiffer Finzi (Hilary’s Husband)


SYNOPSIS: Based on Hilary du Pré’s book A Genius in the Family, the movie chronicles the rise to fame and physical decline of world famous cellist Jacqueline du Pré. Sisters in a musical English family, Jackie and Hillary both win awards in musical competitions, but Jackie soon eclipsed her older sister. When grown, Jackie performs around the world, marries the young pianist Daniel Barenboim, and attains international celebrity. Hilary marries Kiff, has children, and settles in a rural area. Jackie is afflicted with Multiple Sclerosis, which first manifests itself in dementia, and later in complete paralysis. Jackie dies in 1987. The movie is presented from two perspectives, first through the eyes of Hilary, and second through the eyes of Jackie. Emily Watson was nominated for the best actress Academy Award for her role in the movie.


1. Jackie and Hilary’s stories are presented in two parts: first from Hilary’s perspective, then from Jackie’s. As such, the movie displays a kind of epistemological relativism in which there are two realities based on the two character’s perspectives. Epistemological relativism is most pronounced when the two perspectives contradict each other in some important respect – for example Bob perceives that an animal in front of him is a cow but Joe perceives that that same animal is a horse. Are Jackie’s and Hilary’s perspectives contradictory in any way or are they reconcileable?

2. One movie reviewer writes the following: "The story is told in such a chopped-up way that it often seems pointless and certainly devoid of much-needed editing." Is the reviewer right, or does the story benefit from the chopped-up presentation?

3. The movie displays an element of moral relativism regarding Jackie’s and Hilary’s views about sexual: Jackie is sexually liberal and Hilary is much more conservative. This is particularly evident when Jackie shows Hilary her diaphragm. Moral relativists like Sextus Empiricus might argue that their conflicting views about sexual ethics means that we, as spectators, should have no strong convictions about whether such conduct is right or wrong. Would Sextus be correct in this instance?

4. Jackie was clearly mentally off balance when she stayed with Hilary and her husband Kiff. Would Hilary and Kiff have conceded to Jackie’s sexual wishes if they knew that her imbalance was the result of MS?

5. The movie suggests that Jackie’s and Hilary’s identities were in some sense intertwined, such as when they read each other’s minds. The camera work suggests this as well when the two dance together, swinging around in circles like a propeller blade. To what extent were their identities really intertwined?

6. At two points Jackie displays an unusual ability to mimic foreign accents, once in Italy and once in Germany. Later, when she becomes involved with Daniel, her speech pattern transforms and she begins talking in a foreign dialect like he does. At one point her brother asks her why she talks like that. It is reasonable to presume that she was not faking it. What does this strange linguistic behavior suggest about her personality?

7. When she finds out that she has MS, Jackie states that she’s somewhat relieved since she felt that she was going mad. Her father echoes that sentiment as well: “It’s all frightful, but it’s better than going bonkers; I was sure she was going bonkers.” In retrospect, this was a rash thing to say. Why, though, did they initially feel that MS was so much better than going mad?

8. Although Daniel was leading a double life, Jackie was nevertheless happy with him before she found out. Is this another instance of relativism, or just a matter of deception?

9. Hilary’s name is first in the movie title. Does that mean that her version of events is the true one?


This was one of my favorite movies. Considering it was based on a true story, the plot was certainly realistic. The movie itself never strays into an inconceivable oblivion, but focuses very strongly on the relativism in epistemology topic at hand. And certainly, this is where it shines. I take it to show that, although relativism seems plausible, it is quite false. The events portrayed in the movie happened in one way. While Hilary and Jackie take different stances on the situation, the outcome remains constant irrespective of their personal feelings. For example, Jackie sends her socks home to be washed. Her personal feeling is that of homesickness. She longs for a sense of security she obtains from being in her families presence. Hilary, on the other hand, interprets the action as “selfish” and views her sister as a lazy, spoiled brat. But the fact remains that Jackie sent them with good intentions, and the outcome is the same regardless of Hilary’s personal outlook. On the flip side, there are several instances where Hilary had good intentions, and Jackie assumed they were bad (like the bedroom scene before she marries Kiffer). I really enjoyed the movie because it just puts one more nail in the coffin of a long deceased relativism argument. -- The Apostate

Philosophy and Film - Return to Main Page