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 outside the institution, and often wanders away from the hotel. 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.
Geoffrey Rush resumed piano lessons — suspended when he was 14 — in order not to require a hand double.
Shine won the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Geoffrey Rush), and was nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Armin Mueller-Stahl), Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay.
It also won a BAFTA and Golden Globe Award for "Best Actor". The AFIs gave it significant recognition as well, with nine nominations total. A number of cast members received supporting actor nominations. Mueller-Stahl received an Academy Award nomination (he also won the AFI Award for Best Supporting Actor), and the BAFTAs and Screen Actors Guild Awards nominated Sir John Gielgud and Noah Taylor (adolescent David Helfgott) for Best Supporting Actor, respectively.
As happens with biographical films, the movie has attracted reproach from critics who struggle with the difference between an exacting documentary as compared to a dramatized story of a historical person's life. The criticism about the differences between a word-for-word history of David Helfgott and a work of drama focus on two main grounds:
Critics allege that certain events and relationships in David's life are portrayed with wild inaccuracy, sometimes even fabricated, resulting in damage to the reputations of real people. Helfgott's sister Margaret Helfgott, in her book Out of Tune, stresses in particular the case of Helfgott's father Peter Helfgott, who was, according to her, a loving husband, over-lenient parent and very far from the abusive tyrant portrayed in Shine. Peter Helfgott's decision to prevent David from going overseas at the age of 14 was not made with the vindictive spirit portrayed in Shine, she claims, but a reasonable judgment that he was not ready for such independence. Margaret Helfgott further claims to have been pressured by David's second wife Gillian and by the publishers of the film to stop making trouble for them by telling her story. Although Margaret Helfgott has possession of letters between Helfgott and his father, the copyright is held by Gillian Helfgott who has prevented their contents from being published.
Margaret Helfgott's criticisms have been disputed by people involved with making the film. Scott Hicks published a letter to The Wall Street Journal when Margaret Helfgott’s book came out, defending the authenticity of the movie's portrayal of Helfgott's childhood and suggesting that David's other siblings, Susie and Les, were at odds with Margaret's claims and were happy with the movie. John Macgregor—who was involved in the research and wrote the treatments for Shine—wrote, in a letter to The Australian, that the portrayal of the Helfgotts' father was supported not only by David's 'elephantine' recollections, but (with the exception of Margaret) by every family member and family friend he and Scott Hicks interviewed, as well as by every interviewee who had a professional or musical connection with David throughout his early life.
As Margaret Helfgott had stated that many people in these categories were critical of the film's portrayal of Peter Helfgott, Macgregor, in his letter, called for them to come forward. None did so.
Helfgott's mother said the film haunted her and that she felt "an evil had been done".
Critics also claim that Helfgott's pianistic ability is grossly exaggerated. In a journal article, the New Zealand philosopher Denis Dutton claims that Helfgott's piano playing during his comeback in the latter part of the 1990s has "severe technical and aesthetic deficiencies which would be unacceptable in any musician whose reputation had not been inflated beyond recognition". Dutton claims that, while listening to the movie, he covered his eyes during the parts where Helfgott's playing was used in order to concentrate entirely on the music, and not be distracted by the acting. He felt that the musicianship, when perceived in isolation, was not of a particularly high standard. Helfgott's recent tours have been well attended because, according to Dutton, Shine's irresponsible glamorisation of Helfgott's ability has attracted a new audience who are not deeply involved in the sound of Helfgott's playing, thereby, he says, drawing deserved public attention away from pianists who are more talented and disciplined.
The early career triumphs documented by the film are factual. Violin virtuoso Isaac Stern wanted to bring Helfgott to the US to mentor; conductor Daniel Barenboim was a great admirer; and Helfgott's Royal College of Music tutors did indeed praise his playing in such terms as "sheer genius". But the film's makers have pointed out that critics of Helfgott's present-day technical ability are missing the point – which is not that Helfgott is now one of the world's great pianists (a claim that has never been made), but that the love of his wife enabled him to sufficiently recover from a long and bitter struggle with mental illness to play again for audiences.
- "With a Girl Like You" (Reg Presley) – The Troggs
- "Why Do They Doubt Our Love" written & perf by Johnny O'Keefe
- Polonaise in A flat major, Op. 53 (Frédéric Chopin) – Ricky Edwards
- "Fast zu Ernst" – Scenes from Childhood, Op. 15 (Robert Schumann) – Wilhelm Kempff
- La Campanella (Franz Liszt) – David Helfgott
- Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in C sharp minor (Liszt) – David Helfgott
- "The Flight of the Bumble Bee" (Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov) – David Helfgott
- Gloria, RV 589 (Antonio Vivaldi)
- "Un sospiro" (Liszt) – David Helfgott
- "Nulla in mundo pax sincera" Vivaldi – Jane Edwards (vocals), Geoffrey Lancaster (harpsichord), Gerald Keuneman (cello)
- "Daisy Bell" (Harry Dacre) – Ricky Edwards
- "Funiculi, Funicula" (Luigi Denza)
- Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30 (Sergei Rachmaninoff) – David Helfgott
- Prelude in C sharp minor, Op. 3, No. 2 (Rachmaninoff) – David Helfgott
- Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 (Ludwig van Beethoven)
- Sonata No. 23 in F minor, "Appassionata", Op. 57 (Beethoven) – Ricky Edwards
- Prelude in D flat major, "Raindrop", Op. 28, No. 15 (Chopin)
Shine received critical acclaim. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds a 90% rating, with an average score of 8.1/10, based on 42 reviews. On Metacritic, the film has a 87 (out of 100), based on 25 critics, indicating "universal acclaim".
Shine grossed $35,892,330 in the United States and Canada. The film also grossed $10,187,418 at the box office in Australia.