Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 8/14/05.
One of the most acclaimed and influential female directors in international cinema, Jane Campion has brought a new style to cinema that explores the behaviors and roles of women. After doing several short films in the 1980s that won her acclaim, including a short called Peel that won her the Palme D'or in the short film competition. After a TV feature for Two Friends for Australian television, the New Zealand born director gained her breakthrough in 1989 with a dysfunctional family film called Sweetie that won Campion some international acclaim for Best Foreign Film in the Independent Spirit Awards and the New Generation Award from the L.A. Film Critics Association. In 1990, Campion did another Australian TV-miniseries on the life of author Janet Frame called An Angel at My Table that got a theatrical release where Campion received a Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival and another Best Foreign Film prize at the Independent Spirit Awards.
Then in 1993, Campion returned with what many considered to be her greatest work to date as well as a landmark for female directors in an elegant, harrowing drama entitled The Piano. Written and directed by Campion, the film is about a 19th-century mute who is sent to colonial New Zealand to be married to a land owner with her illegitimate daughter in tow. Bringing her piano to an island where the owner lives, the owner wouldn't let her bring it and instead, gave it to a gruff, settler/Maori translator. The woman is angry though she and the settler find an attraction to each other that is beyond anything. Starring Holly Hunter, Sam Neill, Harvey Keitel, Anna Paquin, Kerry Walker, George Boyle, and Genevieve Lemon. The Piano is a rich, emotionally powerful drama that strikes with each note like the film's title itself.
Having not spoken since age 6, Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter) learns that her father (George Boyle) is sending her to be wed to a land owner in colonial New Zealand. Though Ada communicates through sign language, she doesn't consider herself silent since she her true form of communication and joy is through playing her precious piano. With her daughter Flora (Anna Paquin), who she had from an illegitimate relationship, going to New Zealand with her from their home in Scotland as her spokesperson. They take everything including the piano. They wait in the beach of New Zealand where they meet Stewart (Sam Neill) who is accompanied by a group of Maori tribesmen and an English settler turned half-Maori named George Baines (Harvey Keitel).
Stewart takes everything but the piano to his home through the muddy, swamp-like land as immediately, Ada is upset since he wouldn't bring the piano though he claims he's coming back for it later on. Meeting Stewart's relatives Aunt Morag (Kerry Walker) and Nessie (Genevieve Lemon), Ada and Stewart have a rainy wedding ceremony and picture though Flora is upset that she’s not in it while insisting she won't call Stewart her father. Flora tells a story to Aunt Morag claiming that Ada was once an opera singer and her father died from a lightning strike. Desperate to be with her piano, Ada and Flora ask Baines to take them to beach to be with the piano as Ada plays the piano with Flora dancing on the beach. Baines realizes what meaning the piano has to Ada as he makes a deal with Stewart.
Baines takes the piano in his home while Stewart has an increase in land which only upsets Ada as Stewart is desperately trying to win her love. Baines asks only for piano lessons as Ada makes a bargain to play a few keys for each visit and Baines would give her back the piano. Ada would often visit while Flora plays outside with Baines’ dog as Baines just listens as he understands the attachment that Ada has for her piano. The visits continues as Baines finds an emotional and sexual comfort in her playing as she resists his primal attitude. When a play for the Maori tribe and its chief plus locals is happening, Ada uses Stewart to make Baines jealous. The next visit reveals Baines’ sensitivity where the two begin to engage each other, sexually as Flora watches.
After tattling to Stewart, Baines makes a deal to give Ada back her piano as Stewart realizes the power that the piano has on her. Ada is upset at Baines where the two realize their attraction as does Stewart. Stewart attempts to reach out to Ada in the same level but her piano playing becomes only half-hearted. Stewart's relationship with Maori tribe falters as he learned that Baines is leaving for good. Ada tries to imagine herself with him using Stewart as her suitor but he begins to realize what it’s all about as his frustrations lead to emotional and mental aggravation for himself.
Straying away from traditional romantic concepts, Campion goes for a more Gothic, emotional tone for her story by using a tough-as-nails mute as her heroine. While the story has elements of psychological, there's a lot of emotional elements in terms of the development of its central characters. Using the colonial, muddy New Zealand as her backdrop, the tone of the film is very earthy and Gothic in ways that some critics of the film defined the story and its directing as poetic. There's a subtlety and melancholia that revolves around the love story of Baines and Ada that is filled with tension but there's a feeling into why they love each other and how Stewart is forced to come to terms with it. Another character that is very important to the film is the piano itself since it represents the lost voice of Ada in a metaphorical way. It's her voice and her heart that she rarely lets people aside from her daughter share with. It's only Baines who takes his time to understand what it means to her and when the piano is in possession, he takes care of it with such sensitivity.
Campion's work as a writer is wonderfully filled with emotional moments and some of the most intense and diabolical moments of the film. Campion as a director captures some of the greatest pieces of scenery that is not expected in a dark, romantic film. The way she moves the camera and how it will come in the perspective of a character or third person is mesmerizing. There's moments that Campion even has an epic scope of some scenes that the audience is aware that they're in a different world and different time. Campion succeeds in giving the audience to feel that they're actually there while watching a tragedy ready to unfold in the third act. Another thing that Campion succeeds in the directing field is her elegant approach towards sex where its done in a subtle and emotional way instead of doing it for sexual stimulation though sex in the film is portrayed realistically and emotionally.
Capturing the dark, Gothic tone of the film in its look is cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh who uses very little lighting to capture the authenticity in many of the films interior scenes at night and whatever elements of light in the day scenes. For exterior scenes, Dryburgh captures the muddy, blue-green look of the film without using any kind of artificial light when the scenes require to be rainy in its look while capturing the epic scope of the film's beaches and hills. Capturing the authenticity and period tone of that film are production designer Andrew McAlpine and costume designer Janet Patterson. Editor Veronika Jenet helps give the film a leisurely but not too-slow pacing style that would've made other period films seem slower while sound designer Lee Smith captures the film's sound of winds and waves to capture the natural tone of the film. Then there's the film's eerie, melancholic piano score by Michael Nyman helps bring the Gothic mood of the film along with some great, expressive piano playing.
Finally, there's the film's enriching cast that includes some wonderful supporting performances from George Boyle, the actors who play the Maori tribesmen, and Campion regulars Genevieve Lemon and Kerry Walker as Stewart's relatives who look at the troubling relationship of Stewart and Ada. In her feature film debut, Anna Paquin gives a remarkable performance as the innocent, resentful Flora who serves as her mother's mouth piece but when Ada leans closer towards Baines. Paquin channels all of her anger and frustration since she's also in a way, her mother's conscience in a performance that is powerful. Sam Neill is also brilliant in his role as Stewart as a man who is so desperate to be loved, he actually gives him a bit of sympathy. Neill's portrayal is definitely masterful in the way he makes Stewart not an unlikeable character but a man who just doesn't understand things while dealing with the fact that he's doing the best he can to win Ada's love.
Harvey Keitel is wonderfully amazing in his role as the complex George Baines who brings a primal presence as a man whose intentions might seem horrible but Keitel brings a tenderness and understanding to the role. While Keitel isn’t afraid to show himself naked (much to the dismay of some viewers), Keitel bares more than his body in the way he displays care and sensitivity to Ada and her piano. The film’s greatest performance is Holly Hunter who throughout the film rarely speaks (only in the opening narration where she uses a Scottish accent).
Hunter stands her ground against her male counterparts while bringing a grace and selfishness to her character since she carries about her precious piano. Hunter brings a lively performance with the piano as she and Keitel have a wonderful sense of chemistry and tension while also having great scenes with Neill and Paquin. Hunter is really the film's heart and soul in this rich, minimalist, and harrowing performance where the Conyers, Georgia native shows her range as an actress.
When the film premiered at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival, it was a surprise hit as the film won a Best Actress prize for Hunter and sharing the coveted Palme D'or prize with Farewell My Concubine by director Chen Kaige. The film premiered internationally later on as it won rave reviews along with some box office success as Jane Campion was becoming the premier female director of her time as she was the second woman to garner a Best Director nomination in the Oscars. The film eventually won several awards including three Oscars for Best Original Screenplay for Campion, a Best Supporting Actress prize for Anna Paquin, and a Best Actress prize for Hunter (who was also nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her role in The Firm).
The Piano is an enriching, melancholic masterpiece from Jane Campion thanks to the enriching performances of Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel, Sam Neill, and Anna Paquin. While the film has managed to hold up as one of the seminal features by a female director, it's not easy since the performances and Gothic narrative does demand patience. Still, with repeated viewing, the movie does become easier to understand. Anyone interested in the works of Jane Campion will find a perfect introduction with The Piano.
Jane Campion Films: Sweetie - An Angel at My Table - The Portrait of a Lady - Holy Smoke! - In the Cut - Bright Star - Top of the Lake (TV miniseries) - The Auteurs #25: Jane Campion