A man (Geoffrey Rush) wanders through a heavy rainstorm finding his way into a restaurant. The restaurant’s employees try to determine if he needs help. Despite his manic mode of speech being difficult to understand, Sylvia learns that his name is David Helfgott and that he is staying at a local hotel. She returns him to the hotel, and despite his attempts to engage her with his musical knowledge and ownership of various musical scores, she leaves.
As a child, David (played by Alex Rafalowicz) is growing up in suburban Adelaide, South Australia and competing in a local music competition. Helfgott has been taught to play by his father, Peter (played by Armin Mueller-Stahl), a man obsessed with winning who has no tolerance for failure or disobedience. David is noticed by Mr. Rosen, a local pianist who, after an initial conflict with Peter, takes over David’s musical instruction.
As a teen, David (played by Noah Taylor) wins the state musical championship and is invited to study in America. Although plans are made to raise money to send David and his family is initially supportive, Peter eventually forbids David to leave and abuses him, thinking David leaving would destroy the family. Crushed, David continues to study and befriends local novelist and co-founder of the Communist Party of Australia, Katharine Susannah Prichard (Googie Withers). David’s talent grows until he is offered a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London. David’s father again forbids him to go, but with the encouragement of Katharine, David leaves. In London, David enters a Concerto competition, choosing to play Rachmaninoff’s enormously demanding 3rd Concerto, a piece he had attempted to learn as a young child to make his father proud. As David practices, he increasingly becomes manic in his behavior. David wins the competition, but suffers a mental breakdown and is admitted to a psychiatric hospital, where he receives electric shock therapy.
David recovers to the point where he is able to return to Australia, but is still rejected by his father. David relapses and is readmitted to a mental institution as a young man. Years later, a volunteer at the institution recognizes David and knows of his musical talent. She takes him home but discovers that he is difficult to control, unintentionally destructive, and needs more care than she can offer. She leaves him at the hotel from earlier in the film. David has difficulty adjusting to life in broader society again, and often leaves the hotel to stimulate his interests. David wanders to the nearby restaurant.
The next day David returns to the restaurant, and the patrons are astounded by his ability to play the piano. One of the owners befriends David and looks after him. In return David plays at the restaurant. Through the owner David is introduced to Gillian (Lynn Redgrave). David and Gillian fall in love and marry. With Gillian’s help and support, David is able to come to terms with his father’s death and to stage a well-received comeback concert, presaging his return to professional music.