BY MIA STEINBERG
Let’s get the harsh truths out of the way right off the bat. On paper, Grand Piano is not very smart. Its premise is a bit ludicrous, its twists are arbitrary and disconnected, its characters aren’t as fleshed out as the movie thinks they are, and it has a finale that plunges right off the deep end into campy Phantom of the Opera territory. The direction is absolutely by the book with lots of reflections, very specific uses of green and red, and a few decent long shots that teeter on the edge of being showoff-y. It’s very eager to display all the old Hitchcockian tricks, but it’s also got a premise that’s nearly impossible to pay off.
But with all of that said, Grand Piano is also one of the most effective thriller films I’ve seen, and the parts where it does shine are absolutely brilliant. The film centres on anxious pianist Tom Selznik (Elijah Wood), who is about to perform in public for the first time since he flubbed the ending to a notoriously difficult piece that could only be played by two people: Tom, and his legendary, now-deceased, mentor. As Tom begins to play the concert, surrounded by an audience that is equally supportive and derisive, he finds a note scrawled in his score: “Play one wrong note, and you die.” There is a mysterious figure in the back of the theatre, and he has a sniper rifle with clear aim on both Tom and his beloved wife Emma. Tom finds himself trapped onstage, speaking with his tormentor through a hidden earpiece and playing a game of psychological cat-and-mouse in between concerto solos.
Like I said, the premise is a bit ludicrous, but Grand Piano‘s strength is how it plays with the similarities between thriller films and classical music. Both use tension and resolution as the primary means of evoking an emotional response. They establish initial rules, brush up against the edge of chaos, and cleverly turn audience expectations upside down before resolving in a satisfying manner. Furthermore, pianists are the classical music every man. Very few people will ever play a violin, but we’ve all picked out Chopsticks on a piano at some point, so we’re able to appreciate Tom’s talent and understand his deep fear of failure. When Grand Piano is focused on this concept, all of the above-mentioned film making tricks snap perfectly into place, and create a genuine sense of tension and thrill. The very best scenes are the ones where Tom and his tormentor speak back and forth, with Tom perfectly reflected in the grand piano’s raised lid, and the man sneering “I’m the voice in your head.” As he pushes Tom’s emotional buttons, you begin to wonder if the sniper really does exist, or if we’re watching a nervous mind collapsing under impossible expectations and self-inflicted pressure.
If you can forgive the sillier parts of Grand Piano‘s plot, you will find a Black Swan-esque examination of the relationship between the artist, their art and audience set against a truly stunning score by Victor Reyes. Wood is marvellous at conveying Tom as a man with both extraordinary talent and with very real anxiety. His facial expressions and body language convey far more than his dialogue, and Tom feels like a very real man with a life outside of the ninety minutes we spend with him. Wood isn’t the only actor in the film, but he’s really the only one who matters. Grand Piano shines when it focuses on Tom being held hostage by his music, questioning everything he’s ever known, while grappling with an art form that is viscerally personal. There are many thematic layers buried in this central portion of the film, and it’s a true pleasure to watch—both as a film lover and a classical music fan.
Mia Steinberg is a writer, radio host, tech nerd and professional neon redhead living in Victoria, BC. She can be found on twitter @MiaSteinberg, as well as on her radio show blog particlesandwavesshow.com.