Born in Uganda, Hicks spent his childhood in Kenya and Great Britain before his family settled in Australia during his teens. Though Hicks planned to major in English and drama in college, he was captivated by film studies instead. After graduating with honors, Hicks spent several years working on film crews for various Australian productions, including Bruce Beresford's early heist movie Money Movers (1978), as well as creating his own short films. During the 1980s, Hicks made several low-budget Australian-fiction feature films, directing the teen road movie Freedom (1982), and writing and directing Call Me Mr. Brown (1986), as well as the youth-oriented Sebastian and the Sparrow (1988). Hicks found more success, however, with his documentaries, earning a Peabody for his inside look at the Chinese Army, The Great Wall of Iron (1989), and an Emmy for Submarines: Sharks of Steel (1994).
Hicks finally reached the international movie audience when his long-gestating Shine debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 1996. Based on the eventful life of troubled concert pianist David Helfgott, and a labor of love for Hicks since he first saw Helfgott perform in 1986, Shine's exuberant visual style, uplifting story, and sterling performances by Geoffrey Rush and Noah Taylor as the tortured musician, and Armin Mueller-Stahl as his autocratic father, sparked a bidding war at Sundance. A box-office hit, Shine sealed Hicks' reputation when it earned seven Oscar nominations, including directing and writing nods for Hicks, and Rush won for Best Actor. Though he resisted relocating to Hollywood, Hicks subsequently nabbed the plum assignment of directing the screen version of the best-selling novel Snow Falling on Cedars (1999). Other than kudos for its lush cinematography, however, Snow Falling on Cedars failed to win over critics and audiences. Hicks' less than felicitous relationship with Hollywood movie-making continued with his adaptation of a Stephen King story, Hearts in Atlantis (2001). Despite the presence of such A-list talent as star Anthony Hopkins and screenwriter William Goldman, Hearts in Atlantis' story of friendship between a lonely boy and a supernaturally gifted man received mixed notices and floundered at the box office.