Australia/New Zealand/France | 1993 | Directed by Jane Campion
Logline: In the mid-19th Century a mute pianist and her young daughter arrive in New Zealand for an arranged marriage, however she becomes romantically involved with another man.
When the Piano was first released it was unlike any other New Zealand movie seen before, period piece or contemporary. Such a lush and darkly enchanting tale of commitment and betrayal, of loneliness and yearning, of passion and resignation, Jane Campion’s extraordinarily beautiful dramatic romance was as narratively lyrical as it was musically evocative. Twenty-one years down the track and most of it has aged like a fine fortified wine.
Ada (Holly Hunter) and her precocious nine-year-old daughter Flora (Anna Paquin), along with Ada’s prized pianoforte have traveled from the rugged country of Scotland to the rugged west coast of New Zealand. It is the 1850s. A Kiwi frontiersman, Alisdair (Sam Neill) is to be her husband, but Ada isn’t so sure. Neither is Alisdair. But Baines (Harvey Keitel), a forester and retired sailor, finds himself drawn to the tiny mute woman with the large expressive eyes.
In a land riddled with strange cultural crossovers Ada finds herself retreating into her own world. Her beloved piano is initially abandoned on the desolate beach, but soon enough it is taken under Baines’ wing, after he convinces Alisdair to barter it, and then he uses to his romantic advantage. Ada is seduced into a tutor’s arrangement with Baines, much to Alisdair’s chagrin, and much to young Flora’s frustration. Soon, the musical clouds will darken.
The original working titles for the movie were Pleasure and The Black Keys, but the final decision is perfect. This is not as much Ada’s story, as it is the song of Love itself; it’s hardship, its perseverance, its cruelty, its ingenuity, its depths, and its emancipation. Michael Nyman’s rich and emotive score transcends the boundaries of Ada’s gilded cage. The music that Ada plays is also Nyman’s, and while not historically accurate, it is part of the poetic license Campion employs to conjure her dreamy realm.
The depiction of the Maori people is the movie’s weak element, shallow, and on occasion condescending. While they are not crucial to the storytelling, their culture plays a large part in the narrative atmosphere. The Maori characters are all in small supporting roles or as featured extras (look for a young Cliff Curtis!) used more as comic relief than anything else.
Holly Hunter delivers a career performance, not only helping to create her character’s own sign language that she and Flora use to communicate, but performing all her solo piano work. Her presence on screen is something to behold. Those dark eyes are hypnotic! Sam Neill and Harvey Keitel give suitably solid work, but Anna Paquin’s delightful rascal is a scene-stealer (she won the Supporting Actress Oscar). I like how hers and Ada’s characters are often reversed; Flora being the one who advises her mother, and Ada throwing a tantrum like a spoiled child.
But the other true star of The Piano is Stuart Dryburgh’s sublime cinematography, the wild landscape saturated in blues and greens, like the deep ocean. Combined with Campion’s immaculate eye for composition (and Kiwi lens legend Alun Bollinger as camera operator) the result is a kind of rustic Kiwi-Gothic, a sensual masterpiece. Yes, yes, I know it’s often considered an Australian movie, but that’s just semantics.