I can’t believe I’ve overlooked this 1993 Jane Campion masterpiece for so long, though on the other hand I doubt I’d have appreciated it as much as a teenager; its bleak yet sensuous atmosphere, literary vibe and complicated relationships probably resonate better with my older self.
At the heart of The Piano is Holly Hunter’s astonishing performance as Ada, a 19th century Scottish woman who, for reasons unknown, has been mute by choice since childhood. She communicates with the world through sign language interpreted by her young daughter Flora (Anna Paquin, who was the second-youngest person to win an Oscar), and her beloved piano – music is a way for Ada to let go and express her true self. As the film starts, Ada is married off to a New Zealand settler named Alisdair Stewart, and travels to the distant frontier town where people struggle to maintain a thin veneer of European civilisation over the rain and mud.
Locked in her silence, with black eyes burning in a chalk-white face, Ada is a strange, intense creature, and her emotions have a childlike purity to them. Stewart, who doesn’t have an unconventional bone in his body, never gets over his initial negative impression or makes an attempt to understand his wife. When it looks like it’s too much trouble to carry Ada’s piano inland from the beach they’ve been rowed to, Stewart leaves it on the shore, despite Ada’s dismay. Though not an outright cruel man, his expectations are basically that Ada will eventually grow to like him and become something like a good pet.
The piano eventually ends up the property of Baines, an illiterate and rough-hewn retired sailor who lives alone near Stewart, and has, as they used to say, “gone native”, affecting Maori markings on his face. He asks Stewart if he will agree to Ada giving him piano lessons, but his real interest is Ada herself: Baines offers her to trade the piano for intimate favours, key by key.
The dynamic between Ada and Baines could have come off very wrong in lesser hands, but Campion’s sensitive, restrained handling ensures that Ada never feels like a victim in the situation. I normally resist the idea that a male director couldn’t handle a female-centric story, but the depiction of sexuality in The Piano especially does stand out as something that’s shot with a feminine eye. The relationship between these two misfits is more subtle and moving than Baines’ original offer would make it sound, and Ada’s eventual fate is also more complicated and melancholy than what you’d typically find in a romantic story about forbidden passion.
The Piano is a truly transporting film experience. The performances, the beautiful and raw New Zealand landscapes, gothic cinematography, Michael Nyman’s emotive score (including an impossibly haunting iconic piano theme) all combine to create a film as strange and memorable as its enigmatic heroine.