The Piano (1993) / Drama-Romance
MPAA Rated: R for strong sexuality, nudity and some violence
Running time: 120 min.
Cast: Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel, Sam Neill, Anna Paquin
Cameo: Cliff Curtis
Director: Jane Campion
Screenplay: Jane Campion
Review published November 28, 2007
Victorian-era New Zealand is the setting for this very intriguing story of Ada McGrath (Hunter, Broadcast News), a mute woman, as well as her young daughter Flora (Paquin, A Walk on the Moon), who comes to the island for an arranged marriage to Alisdair Stewart (Neill, The Hunt for Red October), who has spent much fof his time trying to barter for land among the native peoples. Her most prized possession to make the long journey there via boat is her piano, which Alisdair deems as too large to carry, leaving it on the beach. Distraught, and quite bitter about her new husband, she grows even more tempestuous when she learns that hubby has bartered away her piano to his interpreter, George Baines (Keitel, Reservoir Dogs), who has secured Ada's services to teach him piano lessons. Only, lessons aren't on George's mind, as he would rather watch Ada play and express herself, and also make a barter of his own to try to get into her multiple layers of clothing -- and in the process, into her heart as well.
Stylistically beautiful and dramatically compelling are the two phrases to come most immediately to mind when discussing writer-director Jane Campion's (In the Cut, Holy Smoke) tale of sexual repression and emotional liberation. The story is really about three people who try desperately to cover their inner feelings, but events that transpire draw out those emotions to the point where they cannot contain them any longer, resulting in utter madness for all. Although a small story about a love triangle askew, Campion's treatment gives her film an epic feel, with stunning cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh (Lone Star, Analyze This), rich symbolism (though a bit pat at times), and a classic narrative delivery that tinkers with ancient tragedy conventions, without ever becoming completely predictable.
Campion's eye toward her characters is appropriately cold and distant, much like the feelings of the people living in the times of religious fervor and inability to express oneself for fear of being social outcasts. The European community contrasts well with the more free-living Maori, whose bodies and emotions are always evident, living happy and productive lives despite not being as wealthy or ambitious as their white-skinned counterparts. Much is made of voyeuristic pleasures, as the looking and longing are all one could ever hope to do, and even when alone together, Ada and George must take small steps in order to finally get to doing what both really want to do. The results are an immediate intimacy where we begin to fear for the fates of the characters, not knowing just what sort of anguish they are in for should their immorality ever be discovered.
Oscars would go to Holly Hunter, who masterfully says so much without ever being shown to utter a single word -- we always know what she's thinking and how much in turmoil she's in, despite her inability to state them aloud. Young Anna Paquin would also get a Supporting Actress award, along with Campion for her richly fine-tuned screenplay. Her film would get 5 other nominations, including Best Picture.
If there's anything I'm left wondering about, it's the film's ending, which appears as if there were two directions the film could go. Campion chooses both, but I'm left with the feeling that she had originally intended the more downbeat of the two, and perhaps either changed her mind, or as is often the case, someone else (perhaps even test audiences, if there were any) opted for a more pleasing one. I'm willing to accept one or the other, but having both seems a bit counterproductive.
The Piano, from outside appearances, looks like a straightforward tawdry romance flick, but its far too sumptuously presented and intricately scripted to ever call it as such. This is a poetic and moving story of people trying to find a happiness that seems ever elusive, and once it is found, their misery in not being able to cherish it due to societal demands and their cursed lots in life. It can be seen as an allegory revolving around women who find their voice, caught between men who treat them as commodities to be owned rather than asked for their affection or attention. That it doesn't feel like an allegory as you watch it is testament of Campion's command of her characters.
©2007 Vince Leo