After a long voyage from Scotland, pianist Ada McGrath and her young daughter, Flora, are left with all their belongings, including a piano, on a New Zealand beach. Ada, who has been mute since childhood, has been sold into marriage to a local man named Alisdair Stewart. Making little attempt to warm up to Alisdair, Ada soon becomes intrigued by his Maori-friendly acquaintance, George Baines, leading to tense, life-altering conflicts.
Jane Campion's third feature film, THE PIANO is a historical drama that tells of a Scottish woman, Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter), who is married off to a colonist in New Zealand that she has never met. Ada is mute, a development that mysteriously came upon her in childhood, but she is a virtuoso pianist and her cherished instrument is one way she communicates her feelings to the world. As Ada and her illegitimate daughter Flora (Anna Paquin) land on the shores of New Zealand's South Island sometime in the mid-19th century, her new husband Stewart (Sam Neill) ignores her sign-language entreaties to carry her piano inland along with their other belongings. Feeling no love for this man she has been forced to marry, Ada is drawn into sexual bargaining with another colonist, Baines (Harvey Keitel) who offers to get her the piano back if she does what he wants.
The first half of this film is an interesting study in sexual power and the tragedy of a woman's lot during this historical era. Neither Stewart or Baines are admirable men; Stewart is uncaring of Ada's true passion for the piano, but Baines exploits her distress and powerlessness to get what he wants and he doesn't respect consent. Unfortunately, as the film develops, Campion decides to ultimately turn this into a straight-up romance novel, where the heroine willingly gives in to the roguish bad-boy. I realize that Campion might go for the common desire of a woman to feel desired, but that shouldn't come at the expense of glorifying a creep as she does here.
To better serve as a foil for Baines, Stewart's squareness is played up, and the two characters are reduced to crude cutouts of a "good guy" and "bad guy". This extends to a critique of 19th-century colonialism and racism: naturally, as the man who audiences are supposed to feel is disgusting and unattractive, Stewart is keen on stealing land from the indigenous Maori people. Baines, on the other hand, as the cool heartthrob, hangs out with the Maori and respects their culture even to the point of learning their language and tattooing his face.
Well, even if the actual plot is a ridiculous pulp fantasy, the production values are fine. New Zealand's wild shore and rainforests are memorably captured by cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh. The film has a distinctive blue cast that unites the thick cover of the forest and the depths of the sea. While some controversy remains about the depiction of the Maori people here, they are still given a great deal of screen time and the ability to speak their own language on film. The piano-heavy soundtrack by English composer Michael Nyman is deservedly celebrated: deliberately anachronistic, its saccharine, minimalist feel of the 20th century represents Ada's innermost thoughts.
There is good acting as well. Anna Paquin, of course, won an Oscar for her depiction of Flora, and one wouldn't expect such mature composure and convincing emotions from a child of this age. Holly Hunter has to convey everything through gestures and facial expressions and she does this marvelously. One of the delights of Campion's feature debut SWEETIE was Genevieve Lemon, and here in a supporting role she turns in here a mildly comedic performance that adds some levity to the severe sexual drama.
Seeing it again some two decades after it came out, THE PIANO feels like a rather slighter film than I remembered it, and it is difficult to understand what drew critics to the time to rave about it. I would really only recommend this to people with a specific interest in New Zealand or Michael Nyman's soundtrack, but I don't see this as an all-time classic.
New South Wales Film & Television Office, Jan Chapman Productions, Australian Film Commission, CiBy 2000 by Jane Campion.
Stars: Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel, Sam Neill.
Genres: Drama, Music, Romance
Keywords: love triangle adultery sexuality jealousy beach culture clash isolation strangeness violent husband new zealand maori arranged marriage settler wilderness secret love mute pianist playing piano woman director sign languages piano 19th century severed finger mother daughter relationship
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