(director/writer: Jane Campion; cinematographer: Stuart Dryburgh; editor: Veronika Jenet; cast: Holly Hunter (Ada), Harvey Keitel (Baines), Sam Neill (Stewart), Anna Paquin (Flora), Geneviève Lemon (Nessie), Kerry Walker (Aunt Morag); Runtime: 120; Chapman/Ciby 2000; 1993-Australia)
“The film is brought slowly together by Jane Campion’s masterful direction.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
The tune emanating from The Piano on a desolate New Zealand coastline, far removed from the 19th century European culture, is a richly passionate one. It is used symbolically to represent civilization.
The underlying theme of the film is one of communication or lack of it in a world that can be cold. The desolate coastline is a place where the sky and sea are dismally gray, and it rains all the time. The native Maoris with their tattooed faces and the white settlers not able to rid themselves of their European ways, find themselves living together in an inhospitable marshy forest. The two diverse groups seem unable to see each other’s point of view as to how to live here, as the Maoris mock the settlers under their breath and the settlers treat the natives as if they were children.
It is a place where the characters either can’t talk (the bride), or can’t listen (the new husband), or are spiteful (the bride’s daughter). It’s a film that unrelentingly studies the affects of erotic yearnings in a restrictive society … as it leaves the viewer with the powerful image of the piano left abandoned in its crate against the forlorn backdrop of the rushing surf and the desolate beach.
Ada (Holly) is a young mute in her early thirties, who for some inexplicable reason has not been able to talk since she was six years old. Her voiceover says, “This is not the sound of my voice you are hearing; it is the sound of my mind.” She is seen in the film’s opening scenearriving in New Zealand by boat and then being rowed by canoe ashore, coming all the way from her native Scotland for an arranged mail-order marriage at her father’s insistence. She is accompanied by her eight year old daughter Flora (Paquin), as she awaits on the beach with all her possessions to meet her unseen British emigrant husband Stewart (Neill). He is trying to make a go of it by cultivating the land in this bush country. The only two things she cares about in life are with her on the beach: her daughter and her piano.
The contradiction of a deaf mute playing music, is underscored by the tremendous joyous feeling that it exudes in Ada. It is her only real contact with the world, and the piano is something that this fiercely proud woman cannot live without.
Ada is soon met by the anxious groom seen trying to comb his unruly hair, but who doesn’t have the presence of mind to give the ladies a kindly welcome. He instead orders the Maoris accompanying him to start bringing all the luggage with them except for the piano. He is not listening to his new bride who writes him anxious notes and talks in a hand sign language to her daughter who translates, as she urgently tells him the piano is hers and she must keep it, even, above her other worldly possessions. But her insensitive and demanding husband who actually wishes for a woman who is totally mute, tells her the piano can’t be taken with them on their long trek to the house because it is too heavy for the Maori laborers to carry; and, he refuses to return for it at a later date. Also at the beach, watching these preceding, is a coarse-looking white man gone native, tattooing his face Maori style, saying nothing about what he sees taking place. The name of this ex-whaler now laborer, is Baines (Keitel).
The illiterate Baines is overtaken with joy after hearing Ada play the piano when she returned to the beach. She is despondent about her marriage and refuses to offer her shy husband any affection, and thusly plays her heart out in the only way she knows how to communicate her feelings. Baines, thereby, decides to make a deal with Stewart for the piano, offering him some land for it, if he can also receive piano lessons from his wife. When the lessons begin, he tells Ada that he wants to receive sexual favors from her. He starts off slowly by lifting up her skirt when she plays, and will eventually take her into his bedroom. In return after a series of such sexual encounters, adding up to the number of black keys there are, the piano will go back to her. That makes the relationship between the two seem devilishly strange. These scenes are very powerful and surprisingly enough come across as being sensual even if the proposal as put-forth, at first, seemed to be an obvious power-play against a hapless victim. But Campion knows how to draw out the passions from these scenes and make this unlikely romance between these opposites bloom. It all seems plausible because their physical wants are what is motivating them.
In the beginning, Ada pretends to be repulsed by him but eventually she warms up, in fact, she even looks forward to the lessons. She does all the playing while he listens, as the music gives off the vibes she wants to communicate. All that he knows is that he just wants her physically, that he feels her inside his gut. The surprise is that he turns out to be a more sensitive person than at first thought possible.
Possibly the most complex character in the story is the little girl, who is shown to be a seemingly loyal companion of her mother but an able liar and a bit of a prude. On the spur of the moment, she fails to follow her mother’s orders to deliver a message to Baines — someone her husband has now forbidden her to see — and does something that turns out to be devastating. She betrays her mother by impishly delivering the message to Stewart instead of Baines, knowing exactly what she is doing. But she is somewhat astonished, to her later regret, about what tragedy this brings about for her mother.
Michael Nyman’s astonishing musical score, expresses the explosive mood of this extraordinary visionary film. A film whose silence and music speaks for itself as an apt way of communicating. The two men want Ada, even though each of them is not really suited for her: one represents a cold and frustrated member of civilized society; while the other is able to express the feelings he has inside himself without being uptight about it, but is a very crude man.
The film is brought slowly together by Jane Campion’s masterful direction, whose understanding of the erotic desires of the characters is right on the mark. The result being an original and haunting film, a story that grew to be intensively disturbing. Stuart Dryburgh’s camera captures the internal mood of the characters, as well as the monotonous beauty and the oppressive reality of the countryside. But the film also misses the mark, at times, as the two main male characters, Keitel and Neill, despite their fine performances, are nevertheless too one-dimensional to give the film more of an impact. It seems as if this is Ada’s story to tell and no one else’s. Holly Hunter, with a gaunt ash-stricken face, is memorizing in a role that she emotionally is in perfect harmony with. Her performance is the key one; it is the one that propels the film to give it its needed air of desperation and to outline the passionate struggle between just surviving and living for love.
REVIEWED ON 10/14/99 GRADE: B+