Jane Campion (director)
16 July 2018 (released)
16 July 2018
This multiple-award winning period drama is film director Jane Campion’s undisputed masterpiece – a story of repression, longing and above all, the piano of its title through which a mute Scotswoman finds expression among the wilderness of 19th century New Zealand.
Celebrating its 25th anniversary, THE PIANO – with its unforgettable score by composer Michael Nyman – is a tale of haunting quality and ethereal beauty, you can even call it poetry in motion. When mute Scotswoman Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter) is sold by her father into marriage she is forced to travel to the other end of the world, New Zealand to be precise, to meet her future husband whom she never met before. He is Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill), a frontiersman of sorts and an early example of a ‘property developer’ whose interest lies in trying to cheat the native Maori people out of their precious land for next to nothing. Together with several heavy trunks, her beloved piano and her little daughter Flora (Anna Paquin), through whom Ada also communicates via sign language, the party arrives on a New Zealand shore with the help of a ship’s crew. Since Alisdair won’t be able to meet her until the following day both Ada and Flora try to make the best of the situation and camp on the beach overnight, with Ada’s oversized hoop skirt being turned into a makeshift tent for little Flora (quite an amusing scene). The next day Alisdair arrives, together with some of his Maori helpers and his friend Baines (Harvey Keitel) – a white man and fellow forester who, since his arrival in the new country years ago, has taken on many Maori traditions including facial tattoos. This first meeting between Ada and Alisdair is admittedly somewhat uneasy, with Alisdair whispering to Baines that Ada is much tinier than he thought she would be and doesn’t look very excited… to which Baines replies: “I think she’s tired”. Straightaway this brief exchange establishes the two main characters as Baines being the more sensitive one and Alisdair – polite but stiff in his mannerisms – not exactly accommodating towards the needs of others.
Much to Ada’s chagrin Alisdair makes it clear that the piano cannot be transported to his house as there would be no space for it, thus completely ignoring Ada’s need for the piano. Despite little Flora frantically explaining that her mother cannot be without the instrument it is decided that it will have to remain on the beach – resulting in a frosty behaviour from Ada towards Alisdair which we know can only just get worse. Other members of Alisdair’s household consist of some relatives including Aunt Morag (Kerry Walker) and her daughter Nessie (Genevieve Lemon) as well as the occasional Maori visitors. Another regular houseguest is the local Reverend (Ian Mune). It is clear Ada feels no passion for Alisdair, even after the marriage ceremony in the drenching rain she and Flora remain in their own separate bedroom. Through Flora’s additional voiceover we learn that she is the product of a romance between her mother and a teacher who later left her. Ada stopped speaking from the age of six with nobody knowing the reason, including Ada herself.
Meanwhile, Ada visits Baines with a note asking to help her transport the piano to her house to which he replies he cannot read. Instead he goes to Alistair with the suggestion that if he lets him have Ada’s piano then he will give Alistair some of his land. The latter accepts and has no objections to Baines further suggestion that Ada give him piano lessons. There is of course more behind all this, for Baines has decided that he fancies Ada for herself… He strikes a bargain with her and proposes that she can have her piano back though she needs to ‘earn’ it – the price is one piano key per musical lesson though initially this only goes for the black keys. Soon, the arrangement takes on a sexual tone, with Alisdair oblivious to what his wife is up to in Baines’ cabin and with Baines not sure whether Ada feels anything for him or whether she agrees to sexual favours purely for ‘business’ reasons. Only Flora knows what’s going on after peeping through a crack in the wall one afternoon but she says nothing. Eventually Baines assumes that Ada has no feelings for him and decides to let her have her piano back without further music lessons/payment, stating that he arrangement is only turning her into a whore and that he no longer gains pleasure from it. Ada finally has her piano back and despite Alistair’s best attempts to get closer to her there is only place in her heart for daughter Flora and her piano. Well, not quite… for she begins missing Baines and secretly visits him in his cabin one afternoon where they finally consume their burning passion. Unfortunately Alistair follows her, having become suspicious after Baines recently comment that he still can not play the piano despite Ada’s apparent lessons… Alistair observes what’s going on but decides to keep quiet for the time being. The next day, however, he forces himself onto Ada after a confrontation but once again, Ada display’s coldness although she agrees to Alistair’s orders not to see Baines anymore – not ever.
The days go by, Ada keeps playing the piano and communicating with Flora while her relation with the increasingly frustrated Alistair deteriorates further. Eventually Ada removes one of the piano keys and engraves a love note on it, then wraps the key into a piece of cloth and sends Flora to deliver it to Baines. Out of naivety or perhaps out of spite as she doesn’t want to go to Baines (“Daddy told us not to see Baines anymore”) the disgruntled Flora walks into the opposite direction and delivers the piano key to Alistair instead, who opens the package and reads the inscription. Beside himself with rage he returns to his house, axe in hand, and pulls Ada from her room. Outside the house he drags her to the wood chopping block and cuts of her index finger with the axe. He then wraps the finger into the piece of cloth and sends Flora to deliver it to Baines with the warning that if he ever comes near his wife again he will chop off more of her fingers… A hysterically screaming and crying Flora is comforted by one of Baines’ female Maori friends, Hira (Tungia Baker), while Baines swears to crush Alistairs’ skull.
That same night, while Alistair lies in bed next to the bandaged Ada, he believes he hears her speaking and begging him to let Baines take her away from this unhappy place. After confronting Baines, who confirms that Ada really cannot speak, Alistair believes some greater power has asked him to agree and he sets Ada free to be re-united with Baines. Together with Flora and, of course, her piano the three leave the same beach on which Ada arrived. As the waves get higher the Maori boats men urge Ada and Baines that the heavy piano must go or the longboat will capsize. Reluctantly Ada agrees but as the piano plunges into the sea Ada, foot deliberately entangled in the rope, follows. Seconds before drowning she has a change of heart, frees herself from the rope and swims upwards to safety again (though with all those heavy Victorian petticoats this could not have been an easy task). An epilogue informs us that Ada, Flora and Baines now live happily in Tasmania where Ada gives piano lessons again thanks to an artificial silver finger. Furthermore Ada has begun to take speech lessons. The film ends with a shot of the piano on the ocean ground and with a poignant poem by English poet Thomas Hood: “There is a silence where has been no sound. There is a silence where no sound may be in the cold grave under the deep, deep sea.”
The performances are utterly compelling, with Hunter and Paquin deservedly winning awards. Stuart Dryburgh’s breath-taking cinematography perfectly complements Michael Nyman’s soundtrack, combined it enhances this domestic drama played out in a muddy frontier backwater on New Zealand’s west coast. The male leads too are terrific, with both Neill and Keitel as characters at ease with their strange and exotic surroundings whereas Ada feels further isolated in this new territory (which at times can be almost mystical and at other times unforgiving). A shadow play in the local church, sabotaged by some Maoris who think the actor behind the screen is about to kill a woman with an axe for real, is one of the film’s highlights and a reminder of the culture clash between New Zealand’s native people and the early white settlers.
THE PIANO is an undisputed masterpiece which easily stands the test of time. As part of the film’s 25th Anniversary some interesting Bonus Material is included, such as various interviews with cast and crew and a brand-new Extra, ‘The Piano at 25’.