The Piano Review

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Jane Campion's film reamins a powerful and moving achievement over twenty years later

by Steve Withers May 22, 2014 at 9:07 PM

  • Movies review

    The Piano Review

    Jane Campion's film was welcomed back in 1993 as part of a new wave of female oriented movies that were written, directed, produced and starring woman.

    The film was critically acclaimed, won three Academy Awards and was a sizeable hit at the box office. Now, over twenty years after its release, does the film still hold up and was it worthy of all the original acclaim? The simple answer is yes and The Piano remains an evocative and powerful portrayal of repression and desire. Campion's film perfectly captures the plight of women in the mid-nineteenth century as Ada and her daughter are sold into marriage and shipped off to the other side of the world.
    It also shows the harsh reality of colonial life at that time, this isn't the New Zealand of Peter Jackson's films but rather the rain-soaked and muddy reality of a time when amenities were terribly limited. The writing and directing by Campion captures the brutality and sexism of the time but also retains a lyrical flair, with the titular piano as both a real object and metaphor for escape. The performances are universally excellent, especially Holly Hunter and a wonderfully natural Anna Paquin.

    The Piano
    The film's story centres around Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter) and her daughter Flora, who are sold into marriage by Ada's father. Her new husband lives in New Zealand and so Ada and Flora are shipped off from Scotland with all their worldly possessions including Ada's precious piano. Ada hasn't spoken since she was six and aside from some brief voice-over that represents Ada's voice in her head, she is completely mute. Her new husband Alistair Stewart (Sam Neill) is a repressed land-owner and forester, who leaves Ada's piano on the beach because he claims they wouldn't be able to transport it through the rain forest to his home.

    Aside from her daughter, with whom Ada has a close relationship and who translates her sign language, the piano means everything to her, providing both a means of escape from reality and a form of expression. The piano and specifically the music that it makes is often used to provide her with a 'voice'. A fellow forester called George Gaines, played by Harvey Keitel, offers to buy the piano from Alistair in exchange for some land. Baines, who is white but has adopted many of the local Maori traditions, including facial tattoos, then agrees to sell the piano back to Ada in exchange for lessons. It soon becomes clear that Baines has an ulterior motive and so an unlikely romance blossoms between them.

    The film is an evocative and powerful portrayal of repression and desire.

    The film centres around a wonderful performance by Holly Hunter, who has to convey an incredible array of emotions through just facial expressions and body language. Her's is a complex character, whose desire to break free from the constrictions of being a woman in the mid-nineteenth century forms the basis of much of the film's narrative drive. It should also be pointed out that Hunter also plays the majority of the piano pieces herself, which is in itself impressive. She certainly deserved her Oscar, as did her co-star Anna Paquin. The young actress, in her first role, became the second youngest winner of an Academy Award at only eleven; Tatum O'Neil holds the record, winning her Oscar at the age of ten for Paper Moon. Paquin's performance is completely believable and she has a remarkable chemistry with Hunter, who taught the young actress sign language in order to bond with her.

    The Piano
    The film's third Oscar went to Campion herself for the screenplay and it's also thoroughly deserved as the New Zealand filmmaker creates an engaging and highly evocative narrative around her central character. It's interesting that she recently confessed she had a very different ending in mind of the film, although it's probably just as well she decided against it as it would have been decidedly downbeat. The film was also produced by Jan Chapman and edited by Veronika Jenet and, at the time, it was seen a leading example of a new wave of women filmmakers. Sadly despite the Oscars, the box-office success and winning the Palm D'Or at Cannes, most of the women involved never reached such creative heights again. Certainly both Campion and Champan's career have been limited since and even Hunter has often been reduced to supporting roles; whilst Paquin has found success through the X-Men franchise and the HBO series 'True Blood'.

    Michael Nyman's haunting piano score gives voice to Ada and remains memorable to this day.

    With all this female talent on show, it's easy to forget the contributions of the men but both Sam Neill and Harvey Keitel deliver powerful performances in very different roles. Neill has the rather thankless task of playing a very repressed man who is tormented by his desires. His pettiness and control nature will boil over into jealous and rage, with tragic consequences. Keitel's Baines by contrast is surprisingly sympathetic and despite his facial tattoos and appearance of having 'gone native', he remains a complex and interesting character. His scenes with Hunter are both touching and genuinely erotic.

    The cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh is also excellent, capturing the harsh beauty of New Zealand long before the picture postcard images of Peter Jackson's Middle Earth films. Perhaps most important of all is Michael Nyman's beautiful and haunting piano score, which forms an integral part of the narrative and remains highly memorable to this day. As does the film itself and whilst its success might not have led to a female renaissance in filmmaking, it remains an evocative and powerful portrayal of repression and desire.

    The Rundown

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