D: Eugenio Mira / 90m
Cast: Elijah Wood, John Cusack, Kerry Bishé, Tamsin Egerton, Allen Leech, Don McManus, Alex Winter
A Hitchcockian thriller with a preposterous MacGuffin at its centre, Grand Piano is set at a classical concert that sees the return to the stage after five years of pianist Tom Selznick (Wood). Selznick hasn’t played in all that time because he choked at his last recital, failing to complete a piece by his mentor Patrick Godureaux called La Cinquette. Now, having been persuaded to return by his actress wife Emma (Bishé), Tom has to face both his fears about playing, and once he’s begun playing, a sniper hidden somewhere in the building. The sniper, Clem (Cusack), wants Tom to play every note of the concert perfectly or he will kill Emma; in particular he wants Tom to play the same piece he couldn’t complete five years before.
The reason for Clem wanting Tom to play that particular piece is revealed at around the halfway mark, and has the potential to make some viewers give up there and then. Up until that point, the script has made a good job of keeping both Tom and the audience in the dark about Clem’s intentions and the reasons why he’s doing it all. It’s also done a good job of slowly increasing the tension as Tom tries to find a way of stopping Clem while keeping both himself and Emma alive, and still completing the concert. Depending on your response to Clem’s motive – and this reviewer found it to be too complicated for its own good – the inherent implausibility in the whole endeavour will either cause you to say au revoir to Tom’s predicament, or keep going out of curiosity as to how everything will be resolved.
My advice, though, is to stick with it. Grand Piano is one of those thrillers where the very unlikelihood of what’s transpiring is irrelevant (Speed anyone?). Thanks to some inspired direction by Mira and a wonderfully nervy performance by Wood, Grand Piano succeeds where perhaps it shouldn’t. From the moment where Tom finds notes from Clem written on his score sheets, the movie shifts up a gear, tightening the screws (or should that be piano strings?) with each new twist and turn. Mira proves himself a supremely confident director, orchestrating the action with style and not a little panache. He knows when to keep the camera moving, even if some of his pans are a little dizzying, but he’s more effective when he keeps the camera static; he makes a virtue of it when Tom begins to play La Cinquette, keeping the camera at a respectful distance and allowing Wood to show off his moves for a good two minutes. It’s a bold move, holding up the action for a solo piano piece, but it works; you’re waiting for the moment where Tom froze last time, hoping the difficulty of the piece won’t trip him up again.
Mira also fares well with his cast, eliciting strong performances from all concerned. As mentioned already Wood puts in a great performance, his initial stage fright giving way to panic and then to desperate resistance before finding a way out of his predicament. When he finally confronts Clem, the script is clever enough not to make him into an instant action hero, and his solution to their fight is entirely credible. As the villain of the piece, Cusack’s performance is mostly a vocal one, as for most of the movie he’s just a disembodied voice in the earpiece he makes Tom wear. Despite this restriction Cusack is more effective under these circumstances than he is when he finally confronts Tom; somehow his physical presence in the movie – while entirely necessary – still feels like a bit of a letdown. It’s not Cusack’s fault, and yet given how good he is as just a threatening voice, maybe it is.
Of the supporting characters, most are underwritten in comparison with Tom and Clem, but they’re there to serve the story’s momentum rather than stand out. Ashley (Egerton) and Wayne (Leech), as friends of Emma are annoying and dim in equal measure, while Emma herself is required to do little more than look constantly worried about her husband. More interesting, and given better motivation and dialogue are Tom’s friend and conductor Norman (McManus) and Tom’s assistant (Winter). Norman is larger than life and shows more faith in Tom than Tom does himself. It’s a small part but McManus plays him with just the right amount of brio and concern. As Tom’s assistant, Winter has a larger role than at first expected, but shows what a talented actor he is, keeping his character’s motives and actions pleasantly off-kilter.
The script, by Damien Chazelle, has its flaws, not least that McGuffin, but it’s structure is sound and it keeps the viewer wanting to know what’s next. There’s some florid dialogue in there on occasion but the cast handle it well, and there’s a satisfying conclusion. But ultimately this is Mora’s picture, and if it wasn’t his guiding hand on the baton, then this could have turned out a lot, lot worse.
Rating: 8/10 – a bravura piece of filmmaking that has a hypnotic effect on its audience; thrilling and exciting in equal measure, Wood’s convincing performance adds greatly to why the movie works so well.