- Holly Hunter as Ada McGrath
- Harvey Keitel as George Baines
- Sam Neill as Alisdair Stewart
- Anna Paquin as Flora McGrath
A stunningly realized tale of passion, sexual awakening and music from Jane Campion, The Piano is a film that slowly burns itself deep into the memory with its mix of mystique, sensuality and atmosphere.
Set in the mid 19th Century, The Piano follows the character of Ada McGrath, a mute Scottish woman who hasn’t spoken a word since the age of six. No one knows why she stopped speaking, let alone Ada. Her father has her married to Alisdair Stewart, a landowner living in New Zealand, on a windy, rain-drenched and misty frontier. Along with her precocious young daughter Flora, who often acts as her mother’s translator, Ada travels to New Zealand to marry a man she has never met before. She immediately takes a dislike to her uptight new husband when he refuses to transport her treasured piano to his home. Alisdair is taken aback by Ada, and because of his attitude towards his workers, which consist of a Maori tribe, he is disliked by many. For Ada, the instrument is an escape and she yearns for the prized piano. George Baines, an illiterate worker for Alisdair who has immersed himself in the Maori culture, agrees to buy the piano from him. Baines has seen Ada’s love for the piano and the passion with which she plays. Ada doesn’t take to kindly to Baines purchasing her treasured piano and goes to see him. It is here that Baines strikes a strange deal with Ada, if she gives him lessons on the instrument, she can regain the instrument. The other part of the deal is that he can do what he likes while she plays, which culminates in advances towards her. Although she is hesitant around him at first, Ada soon comes to care for Baines and the lessons become a string of highly charged passionate encounters as unspoken desires rise to the surface with unusual consequences.
Jane Campion directs with a passionate but objective eye. As well as this, she wrote the screenplay, which delves into the complex characters and shows both their good and bad sides. No character in The Piano is easily identifiable as the hero or villain as they are drawn in such a way that gives them mystery. Campion also manages to successfully incorporate a commentary on burgeoning sexual awakening from a woman’s point of view. Ada is mute in a society in which men are the respected one’s and women are beneath them, this gives her character a certain stubbornness in the way she isn’t conventional of the time in which the movie is set. Striking imagery is ever-present throughout the film, engulfing the characters in dark blues and misty melancholy as passion unfolds from beneath the bonnets and braids of Ada and the uncouth but tender Baines. Eroticism seeps from many a frame as Ada forms an illicit but understanding relationship with Baines. I previously wrote about my love for The Piano’s stunning score in a previous post, but I will do it more justice in this review. Michael Nyman builds his score with beautiful skill, as the music becomes the voice for the silent Ada and engrosses us with its evocative crescendos and lilting lullabies.
Holly Hunters turns in a tour de force performance that deservedly garnered her the Best Actress Oscar. Almost wordlessly, Hunter conveys joy, pain, anger and passion as Ada with adroit intelligence and keen understanding. She forms the beating heart of the romantic drama and is just amazing in her delivery. Harvey Keitel is also highly effective as the rough-hewn but caring Baines, who becomes entranced by the passion of Ada and her piano. Sam Neill is subtle as Alisdair, and interestingly plays him as not just a villain but as a conflicted man not used to the surroundings and with no time to communicate with his wife. A young Anna Paquin also scooped an Oscar win for her excellent performance as the mischievous Flora, who often makes up fanciful tales and dances like a sprite among the misty splendor of the forest. There is a refreshing maturity to Paquin’s performance, as she manages to convey very intense and serious emotions far beyond her young years.
Visually arresting, sonically enthralling and excellently acted, Jane Campion’s The Piano is a passionate and sensual film that is very hard to forget once you’ve finished watching it.