Director: Jane Campion
Production: Jan Chapman Productions, in association with CIBY 2000; Eastmancolour, 35mm; running time: 120 minutes. Filmed in New Zealand, 1992.
Producer: Jan Chapman; screenplay: Jane Campion; photography: Stuart Dryburgh; editor: Veronica Jenet; assistant director: Mark Turnbull, Victoria Hardy, Charles Haskell, and Therese Mangos; production design: Andrew McAlpine; music: Michael Nyman; sound editor: Gary O'Grady and Jeanine Chialvo; sound recording: Tony Johnson, Gethin Creagh, and Michael J. Dutton; costumes: Janet Patterson.
Cast: Holly Hunter ( Ada ); Harvey Keitel ( Baines ); Sam Neill ( Stewart ); Anna Paquin ( Flora ); Kerry Walker ( Aunt Morag ); Genevieve Lemon ( Nessie ); Tungia Baker ( Hira ); Ian Mune ( Reverend ).
Palme d'or and Best Actress, Cannes 1993; Oscars for Best Actress
(Hunter), Best Supporting Actress (Paquin), and Best Original Screenplay,
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* * *
Set in the 1800s, Jane Campion's The Piano is a tale of repression and sensuality. Ada (Holly Hunter) is a mute, who goes to New Zealand, with her nine-year-old daughter to marry a man she has never met; essentially sold off by her father, Ada leaves Scotland for the wilderness and beauty of a new country. She comes to the country completely unprepared for her new life and armed only with her most beloved possessions: her daughter and her piano.
Music is Ada's way of communicating. She puts all of her repressed passion and sexuality into her piano playing. When her new husband Stewart (Sam Neill) refuses to bring the piano up to his house, Baines (Harvey Keitel), a man who has reportedly "gone native," buys the instrument and asks Ada to teach him how to play it. He trades her the piano one key at a time in return for sexual favours. Although initially disgusted and shocked by Baines's forwardness, when he finally gives her the piano, Ada goes to him and allows him to make passionate love to her.
The film portrays the absurdity of transferring the social niceties of Western society onto a wild and unknown environment. The rigidity of the European way of life is contrasted with the freedom of the native Maori culture—and the aboriginals silent contempt and sardonic humour at the expense of Western culture.
When Stewart learns that Ada is sleeping with Baines, his response is unexpected and shocking. During Stewart's violent outburst, the audience thinks that his anger will be directed towards the piano—the symbol of Ada's hidden self—and is shocked and stunned when Stewart drags Ada out of their house and chops her finger off. This is the first expression of his feelings that Stewart has shown— illustrating that under his extremely constrained exterior he is a hotbed of seething passions.
After Stewart confronts Baines, in a scene reminiscent of the opening one in which Ada arrives on the island, Ada and her daughter leave the island with Baines—the piano strapped to the fragile boat. When the piano is thrown into the ocean to lighten the vessel's load, Ada purposely entangles her foot in a rope connected to the piano and plunges to a watery grave. Strapped to the piano Ada begins her long descent into the depths of the sea, but she struggles free and rises to the surface. Thus the piano, the symbol of her expression and repression, is no longer needed. Ada has liberated herself.
Ada is a wilful, stubborn character. Half adult, half child, she combines an iron will with a deep and passionate nature. She has been mute since the age of six, for no apparent reason other than she simply does not wish to speak—she has retreated into a world in which the piano is her only friend and only source of expression. In the end it is ironic that it is the piano, or a part of it, which betrays her. She writes a message on one of the keys and gives it to her daughter to give to Baines. Flora, her daughter, gives it to Stewart instead, beginning the chain of tragic events which result in her mother's disfigurement. Yet in a sense, Ada's choice to withdraw into herself, to keep her voice inside her head, is also about control. She is a woman existing in a patriarchal society—who has no rights, even over herself. She is sold off by her father to Stewart, and is forced to go to a completely new world because of her sex. In choosing not to speak, Ada is exercising control over one of the few things left for her to control.
Stewart and Baines are contrasting images of masculinity and of European culture. While Stewart is tied to managing his female family, and his European social customs despite the inappropriateness of his behavior, Baines is dissolute and lewd. He consorts with the natives and lives a comparatively wild and lascivious life. While Stewart and his family are buttoned-up tightly in their oppressive clothes, Baines is seen naked, or dressed in stained, sweaty clothes.
Campion's The Piano is a superbly filmed piece of cinema. The scope and composition of the cinematography allows the viewer to witness New Zealand through Ada's eyes. The heat and oppressiveness of the climate and landscape are mirrored in the restrictiveness of Ada's apparel. As Ada gives in to passion and frees herself from her society's rules, she loosens her ties to the piano, and to her former silent self. At the end of the film, Ada is slowly shaping words, showing that she is rebuilding her world.