Rewind to 1993, if you will. Scorsese, Altman, Kieslowski, Burton, Ivory, Leigh… a countless number of big names were at the top of their craft, churning out great movies. Nevertheless, 1993 was a year that belonged to one director only: Steven Spielberg. Earlier in the year he’d struck box-office gold with the megahit that was Jurassic Park (the highest-grossing movie of all time until Titanic surpassed it later in the decade). Come awards season and Spielberg was back again. Having been nominated for the Best Director category 4 times without a win, Spielberg was fast becoming one of Oscar’s biggest losers. That all changed with Schindler’s List, his holocaust epic that swept the awards circuit and finally brought him Oscar glory winning 7 Academy Awards including the elusive Best Director award as well as Best Picture. All I’ll say is this: the wrong film won that year, for Spielberg and his List never even remotely come close to the brilliance that New Zealander Jane Campion achieved with her elegiac masterpiece The Piano.
At the core of that film, you’ll find one woman and, somewhat unsurprisingly, her piano. Seems like a bit of a dull concept, doesn’t it? Fair enough, but what if I said that the aforementioned woman was a 19th century mute whose piano served as her “voice” and thus her only means of communication with an outside world that includes an unsympathetic husband (who became her spouse via an arranged marriage, no less) and a seemingly loutish stranger who identifies more with the native Maori tribespeople than the Englishmen and women with whom he shares an ancestral background. Still not sold? Ok then, throw in an emotionally volatile brat of a daughter, some scandalous sexual games, a notable undercurrent of feminism, a battle of male egos and a central theme of unrestrained passion, and then mix in a memorable score and throw in some of cinema’s most breathtaking cinematography for good measure. Now you have a film on your hands. And that’s saying nothing of Harvey Keitel’s cock.
With The Piano, Campion painted a masterful portrait of one Ada McGrath (Hunter) – a complex character and a misunderstood soul to all around her, including her daughter Flora (Paquin). Early in the film it seems like we’ve come across one of the most dislikeable heroines ever to have graced a movie screen. Despite Ada’s silence, she frequently manages to be childish and immature, refusing to co-operate with anyone and everyone unless things are done her own way. But of course, it is then that we hear Ada play the piano – the window to her soul, and only when we bear witness to this wondrous and glorious music do we realise just how passionate and rich the soul that lurks beneath that grimly costumed body actually is. It becomes clear to the audience that Ada lives and breathes through her piano, and without it she is a visibly tempestuous wreck. The big mistake that Alisdair Stewart (Neill) makes upon encountering his new wife for the first time is to completely dismiss this worldly object as an inconsequential nuisance. He doesn’t realise it then, but by dismissing the piano he also dismisses Ada – and by doing that, this man who grows to crave her affection so desperately, makes a misjudgement that will prey on him for the rest of the film.
Whilst the significance of the piano goes completely over Alisdair’s head, the same cannot be said for his neighbour, George Baines (Keitel). Upon hearing Ada play, he is instantly enchanted, and fuelled by both a lust for Ada’s body and a desire for Ada’s heart, he purchases the piano from Alisdair – an act that has Ada raging with fury. Raging that is, until she is provided with an opportunity to earn back her piano via one of the most curiously perverse exchanges in the history of film: “one key…”, says Baines, “one key” for even the slightest sexual favour that Ada gratifies him with. The initial disgust and resentment felt by Ada is quickly overhauled by a sense of longing for her beloved piano, and as both she and Baines get drawn further and further into their world of fantasy, a primal lust is awoken inside of her. Pivotally for all concerned, this lust gradually gives way to that other dreaded l-word: love, for the only person capable of comprehending her need for her piano, and thus the only person capable of comprehending Ada. And so the relationship between Ada and Baines begins to blossom. Unfortunately for them, however, both Flora (infuriated that her mother’s attentions have gone elsewhere) and Alisdair (still yearning for a little warmth) have different agendas, and the would-be lovers soon find themselves hurled achingly close to tragedy…
For a film whose primary character is a mute, Campion’s screenplay is actually something of a marvel to behold. The crescendo-like build-up of the story may well be gradual, but it never falls short of being anything less than gripping, the delicate twists and turns of each of her characterisations seeming almost outlandishly effortless. Note how seamlessly Alisdair and Baines reverse their roles in the film: at first it is Baines who is the unsympathetic character, a menacing-looking brute who exploits Ada’s sexuality, whilst on the other hand Alisdair strikes us simply as the well-meaning husband to whom Ada is being unnecessarily cold. Fast forward to the end of the film and with the benefit of hindsight (and a lot of nudity, a virtual house arrest and some bodily mutilation) it is Baines who emerges as the most compassionate and caring of all the characters, whilst Alisdair finds himself cast as the bad guy. To reduce these characters to “goodies” and “baddies” however, is to cheapen Campion’s work. Baines and Alisdair gradually transform throughout the film as a result of cause and consequence – with Ada acting as the critical source for both.
And what to say of Ada McGrath? The portal by which Campion channels all of her unique themes and ideas into one career-defining work. Perhaps most notably, Ada strikes the viewer as one of the quintessential feminist icons in cinema. She is daring, driven almost helplessly by her will, and her silence (remember, she chose to be mute) is at once: a reflection of the barriers and conflicts in communication that arise between self-serving white colonialists (e.g. Alisdair) and the native peoples that they attempt to take advantage of; a means by which she can disengage herself from the patriarchal trappings of the very language that male-dominated society holds so dear; and perhaps most significantly, a representative commentary on the plight of 19th century women in general and their similar lack of a true “voice”. That Ada dares to tackle the patriarchy (in the form of Alisdair) is an achievement in itself. That she eventually emerges triumphant is a testament to the steely resolve of this exceptional character.
It would simply be an injustice to write a review of The Piano without commenting on the remarkable performances of the actors. Harvey Keitel (who starred in the “other” great feminist flick of the 90s: Thelma & Louise), that beacon of gangster “cool”, plays against type here, donning an accent that’s somewhere along the line between Scottish, Irish and Welsh. Despite this occasional distraction, as well as the commotion he caused with his nude scene, he delivers a noteworthy performance, perfectly functioning as the “rock” in Ada’s existence. Sam Neill (who, incidentally, was in Jurassic Park) seems to get the least attention out of any of the lead cast members, but I’d argue that he’s stronger than Keitel. His aforementioned “transformation” in the film is quietly astonishing, and his later scenes, when he finds himself in limbo between rage, lust, affection and despair, are truly underrated. The real stars of the show, however, are the ladies. Anna Paquin as Flora, became one of the youngest Oscar-winners ever with her gutsy turn as Ada’s immature daughter. Strangely enough, it is the amount of maturity with which Paquin tackles the role that is so impressive. Throughout the shrieking, screeching and wailing, there burns a fire within Paquin’s young eyes that merely hints at the fact that she has further tricks up her sleeve. Incidentally enough, Paquin later serves as the catalyst for The Piano’s most brutal scene. It is Holly Hunter though, who walks away with this film. Ironically, this actress who possesses one of the most distinctive voices in modern cinema won her only Oscar for playing a mute. What that says about Ms. Hunter I don't know – but it does speak volumes about her performance. Removed of dialogue, Hunter is forced to act with only her eyes and her body language (and the piano of the title which, remarkably, she played herself), and she more than rises to the occasion. Whether smouldering with naïve desire, incensed with a burning hatred, lost within anguish and misery, or even when just enjoying a tender moment with Flora – Hunter, by all accounts of good taste, delivers a knockout performance.
I must conclude, however, by commenting on the talents of Jane Campion. The Piano made her something of an overnight sensation and an auteur to watch. Sadly, it seems as if she’s failed to deliver on that promise – but if this is to be the only masterpiece of her career then so be it, for The Piano is a superlative example of a director at her very peak. Infusing her work with surreal, dreamlike imagery and directing with a technically refreshing raw and near-primeval touch (a description that can also be lent to her superb handling of the actors), Campion seems to interlace all the various different threads of her film with absolute ease. The film plays so gently that it’s almost deceptively serene, and yet the drama that appears before our eyes is so complex, so fiery and so profound that the delicate balance that Campion manages to achieve very nearly has the effect of being unsettling. Writhing with its wild and unruly undercurrents of passion, The Piano is undoubtedly one of the most romantic films ever made: but more importantly, it’s a film that dares to question our very notions of love, sexuality and human relationships. For all its unparalleled romanticism, The Piano is as much about the negative effects of human desire as it is the positive.
Complemented by Michael Nyman’s haunting and evocative piano score, one of the most memorable in motion picture history, Campion’s masterwork boasts fascinating characters in a captivating story – but it’s the tremendous host of memorable images that will simply refuse to eradicate themselves from your mind. Those lush, utopian shots of New Zealand’s green forests; and the sight of Ada clamouring for help in the face of Alisdair’s wrath; and the moment that Ada slowly realises her “will” underwater at the end of the film. And above all, the sight of the piano, the fundamental crux of Campion’s intriguingly erotic world, in all its guises – although most lastingly as stated and seen in the film’s epilogue: “in the cold grave, under the deep deep sea." An unforgettable ending, to a damn-near perfect film. Spielberg – you can but dream…