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September 16, 2014

Film + Entertainment | by Francesco Cerniglia


You wouldn’t need to be a film critic to sense the level of Hitchcockian nostalgia oozing off the screen since the opening credits of Grand Piano. The score in itself has such a Hermann-esque feel to it that the homage is practically impossible to ignore. And that’s what Grand Piano unapologetically is: a ridiculously entertaining, taut film that winks at the grand master of suspense with each fiber of its being and makes you forgive and forget the absurdity of its premise by seducing you with its high-octane, fun ride.

The premise is so simple and yet its technical execution was so challenging that the film is commendable if anything else for pulling it off so well it almost seems effortless. But tell that to the wonderful Elijah Wood who plays Tom Selznick, the protagonist, a retired piano prodigy who left the scene after messing up the execution of his illustrious mentor’s renowned and equally impossible-to-play histrionic piece “La Cinquette”. Although Wood has studied piano as a child it’s all another story when you have to make people believe you’re one of the most gifted pianists in the world. And yet the very underrated actor succeeds and not only at that.

We meet Tom as he lands in Chicago and he’s on his way to the theatre where he’s supposed to play an unexpected comeback concert in front of a packed audience. His beautiful and supportive wife Emma (Kerry Bishé), who’s equally popular for her acting and singing career, has arranged it all and she’s already there, waiting for his arrival. There’s no denying Tom is nervous and everything and everyone around him is a reminder of his infamous melt down. Yet he seems determined to do well for this gig organized to honour the memory of his late mentor, pianist/composer Patrick Godureaux.

What Tom could never have the least clue about is the fact that the true challenge he’s about to face goes far beyond avoiding another live performance fiasco. As he takes the stage and begins his act, he finds a message written in the piano score: “Play one wrong note and you die”. Irritated at first by what looks like a mocking prank like the ones he’s found in his dressing room earlier, Tom soon realizes this is not another joke as he acknowledges a sniper rifle’s red dot floating around his figure. But what’s worse is when that dot dangerously pans over to his wife sitting in the balcony.


It would be silly for me to even try to dig more into the story without ruining it as in the end the plot is as thin as it sounds. The film takes place entirely in the theatre during Tom’s performance as he tries to figure out who is threatening him and why but most importantly how to get himself and his wife out of this nightmare alive. It’s a claustrophobic cat and mouse race against time and once you get over some of its silliness (albeit justified by the protagonist’s stage fright) such as Tom leaving the stage when the musical piece is left to the rest of the orchestra and then coming back all flustered, all you need to do is let yourself go to the adrenaline-fueled journey that the filmmakers take you on.

In the end, there’s also a thematic thread to the film that is a reflection on self-doubt and courage and how far we can push ourselves in order to overcome our fears when properly motivated. The antagonist in fact demands that Tom plays the famous piece he messed up back then and the reason behind it is linked to the twist of the film. Said villain by the way is effectively portrayed by veteran John Cusack who seems to have specialized in villainous roles and does a great job at making his presence vividly felt throughout with just his voice for most of the film since he’s communicating with Tom via an ear piece and we don’t see him in the flesh until the very climactic resolution.

Grand Piano is Spanish director Eugenio Mira’s third directorial effort after cult films like 2004’s Corey Feldman starrer The Birthday and 2010’s Agnosia. He joins the well-respected circle of Iberian filmmakers with successful Hollywood collaborations such as Rodrigo Cortés (Buried, Red Lights) who’s also a producer on Grand Piano and Juan Antonio Bayona (The Impossible) and Mira has also worked on their films in various roles. Grand Piano definitely confirms his potential since he impresses with the virtuoso approach and technical achievement he displays to tell this story.


A special mention is also due to the understated talent of Elijah Wood, one of the very few child actors who came out of his young Hollywood days unscathed and who’s always challenging himself creatively. He must have peaked fame-wise with The Lord Of The Rings franchise but you need to check out his wonderful turns in many a brilliant independent films (Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Everything Is Illuminated) and his recently-ended TV series Wilfred. He’s one of those performers committed to the craft and with a surprising range to play with.

Besides actually playing the piano in the film (except apparently a very few extreme hands’ close ups) after a coached training which he reports having been quite stressful and understandably so, he does a great job at drawing us in within his character’s neurotic and emotional journey. Grand Piano may be just a slick and stylish nail-biter but it’s absolutely worth the cinematic ride it offers.

Grand Piano is out in UK cinemas on September 19th and arrives on DVD on October 20th

Francesco Cerniglia – Film Editor