Piano, The (1993): Wonderful Fable, Directed by Jane Campion, Starring Holly Hunter in Oscar-Winning Performance

Oscar History: Jane Campion (The Piano) is the Second Woman Director Nominated for the Best Director Award

Here is what I wrote in 1993
In early May of 1993, while waiting at the Nice Airport for a taxicab to Cannes, I grabbed a local newspaper and was struck by the headline: Jane Campion’s “The Piano” likely to win the Palme d’Or, arguably the most prestigious prize in the global festival circuit.
Indeed, there was so much hype about the film before it was screened to the critics that by the time it shared the top award with Chen Kaige’s “Farewell My Concubine,” it was almost an anti-climax. I mention that background information by way of saying that “The Piano” is an emotionally intense, most accomplished, beautifully realized work, one that should put its director at the forefront of international filmmakers.
Written and directed by Jane Campion, the critics’ darling over the past few years, the film unravels as a nineteenth century romantic fable, imbued with a modernist feminist sensibility. On one level, “The Piano” belongs to the same literary genre of Emily Bronte’s classic, “Wuthering Heights,” but it also has erotic and romantic touches of D. H. Lawrence’s sensationalistic novel, “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.”
Holly Hunter plays Ada, a silent Scottish widow who is deposited on the bleak New Zealand shore with her precocious daughter and her belongings, which include a huge piano. Ada is the mail bride of Stewart (Sam Neill), a settler she’s never met before. Ignoring the importance of the piano, which is Ada’s only means of self-expression, Stewart leaves it on the beach.
Soon, however, Ada strikes a strange arrangement with Baines (Harvey Keitel), an illiterate settler who has chosen to live with the Mauri tribe. Baines will bring her piano back if she allows him to sit close to her while she plays; one black key for every lesson. These piano lessons, that are at first playful but increasingly get more explicitly erotic, set in motion a disturbingly dangerous love triangle that ends romantically but also tragically.
Serving as her mother’s interpreter, Ada’s nine-year-old daughter Flora (brilliantly played by child actress Anna Paquin, who should receive an Oscar nomination) is the melodrama’s catalyst of events. Used as a messenger between Ada and her lover, Flora performs the same role that the young boy performed in Joseph Losey’s masterpiece, “The Go-Between.”
With its careful attention to color, sound and movement, this mesmerizing picture concerns the varied ways in which people communicate–through words, gestures, music, and physical touch. Set in a 19th-century landscape of haunting beaches and muddy forests, “The Piano” is a romantic fable
Producer Jane Chapman told the press that Holly Hunter wasn’t the only actress considered for the plum part, and that originally Ada was going to be a tall, beautiful woman. However, what convinced her and director Campion to cast Hunter was the actress’s “stupendous gaze.” Indeed, endowed with extremely beautiful and expressive eyes, Hunter gives the best performance of her career to date, for which she is likely to win an Oscar nomination. Small and slender in shape, Hunter imbues Ada with power of such proportions that it’s hard to imagine the film without her. She captures the essence of a woman, who has learned how to express herself more powerfully through music, and then unexpectedly, finds release in a strange, beautiful way.
As Ada’s lover, Harvey Keitel, an actor who seems determined to stretch as much as possible, also gives an excellent and surprisingly tender performance. There was some laughter during Keitel’s nude scenes with Hunter, not because they were unconvincing, but because he has done it many times before (in last year’s The Bad Lieutenant). To his credit, Keitel is one of the few actors who take off his clothes with seemingly natural ease and unself-consciousness.
Campion has never directed a film of such epic dimensions. The Piano’s visual canvas and production values, particularly Stuart Dryburgh’s cinematography and Michael Nyman’s lush and evocative music, are quite impressive. What lingers in memory is the dreamlike, watery imagery of the setting, a wild outpost of New Zealand where one individual, the mute Ada, finds her true womanhood against all odds.
The movie has a great beginning and an even a greater conclusion, in which Holly Hunter’s state of muteness is established.
Quoting the English poet Thomas Hood, Ada says in voice-over: “There is a silence where no sound may be, in the cold grave, under the deep, deep sea.”
Spoiler Alert
In the end, Ada takes two trips to the bottom of the ocean, one real, the other imaginary, reaching a life-changing decision that turns the largely bleak saga into a positive feminist and humanist parable.
Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter)
Stewart (Sam Neill)
George Baines (Harvey Keitel)
Fiona McGrath (Anna Paquin)
Unt Morag (Kerry Walker)
Nessie (Genevieve Lemon)
Hira (Tungia Baker)
Reverend (Ian Mune)
Heas Seaman (Peter Dennett)