Synopsis: Winner of 3 Academy Awards including Best Actress (Holly Hunter) and Best Supporting Actress (Anna Paquin), The Piano weaves the passionate tale of Ada, a young mute woman (Hunter) desired by two men. Sold into marriage to a husband (Sam Neill) who doesn’t understand her, Ada finds herself drawn to her darkly intense neighbor (Harvey Keitel), stirring up vengeful jealousies and violent emotions. But in the end, only one man truly understands how to win Ada’s heart – through her beloved piano.
The Piano 8.75
eyelights: Holly Hunter’s performance. the intense script. Michael Nyman’s sweeping score.
eyesores: the grim setting.
“She does not play the piano like we do, Nessie. No, she is a strange creature. And her playing is strange, like a mood that passes into you.”
‘The Piano’ is a period piece set in New Zealand about a Scot piano teacher who has been married off to a landowner and businessman and who, being mute, only truly expresses herself through her piano playing. Bent on breaking her will, her new husband forces her to teach piano to one of his associates, who falls madly in love with her. His passion would disrupt her relationships and cause all manner of conflict.
The picture was a massive critical and commercial success, grossing over 140 million (on a 7 million budget), and is notable for its strings of awards, including the first Palme d’Or to a female director (Jane Campion), an Academy Award to the second-youngest actor/actress ever (Anna Paquin) and for being one of only three films in the post-silent era to net an Academy Award for a non-speaking role (Holly Hunter).
It is one of my favourite films; it’s a deeply moving, affecting tale.
I don’t remember if I saw the movie first or picked up CD first, but it’s clear that the turning point for me was Michael Nyman’s breathtaking score. I had found the CD in a second-hand CD shop and, given its price, and my predilection for buying almost anything, I picked it up. I played the disc like mad, and still do: its sweeping arrangements and delicate keys move me like crazy. It’s definitely one of my favourite scores.
This heavily influences my love of the picture, naturally; I simply cannot disassociate ‘The Piano’ from its music, which is nearly omnipresent. In fact, I think that the music is key to its enjoyment, because the picture is set in the late 19th century and in the backwoods of New Zealand: it’s grim, dirty, unpleasant. The setting is about as barren as the picture is is filled with raw emotional passion – thanks to Nyman and the cast.
–Holly Hunter is unbelievable as Ada McGrath. Although her character never speaks, we feel her every emotion and fluctuation throughout – despite Ada’s façade, which she has constructed to protect herself and her young daughter. She is willful and tenacious, a real survivor. And although she is subject to her father and husband’s whim because of social conventions, she controls her destiny as much as possible.
But she is a woman in a man’s world, and this means that much of her power is relegated to them. When Alisdair Stewart, her new husband, decides that her piano will remain behind, on the beach, there is nothing she can do about it. When George Baines decides to make it his own, there is nothing she can do about it. Decisions are made without her consent because she is considered man’s property. She can only barter.
And she does. She barters her piano lessons, her physical self and her passion for the piano in order to get access to it again, to lose herself in her playing. She needs this piano to live, she needs it to escape the misery of her reality, to be reminded of another life, one where love made her feel alive. When she plays, she is another person and she infuses her playing with her very essence, stirring the locals.
Hunter not only learned the piano enough to be able to emulate Ada’s playing, but she also learned sign language for the part, which required her to communicate with her daughter so that the latter could then translate her messages for the others. It’s a phenomenal performance when one considers how fabulously she inhabited the part and conveyed everything that needed to be expressed. It’s a tour de force.
–Ana Paquin rightly won the Academy Award for her first film, beating out Emma Thompson (for ‘In the Name of the Father’) and, ironically, Holly Hunter herself (for ‘The Firm’). Although I’ve seen stronger performances, it is a rare one for someone so young: one believes in her Flora McGrath from start to finish – she has the vulnerability and playfulness of a little girl, but also the maturity of someone who has weathered storms.
When she begins to turn on her mother, who she feels has pushed her away (while giving “piano lessons” to George, refusing to let Flora inside the shack), we believe it entirely; she feels slighted and her anger grows until she decides to exact revenge. When the impact of her betrayal suddenly becomes apparent to her, Paquin shifts gears completely and shows us Flora’s guilt, torment and wrenching pain.
–Sam Neil plays Alisdair Stewart, a pragmatic man who has decided to brave the New Zealand wilderness for profit. He is not prone to romantic thought nor is he considerate of his new bride; their first meeting is marred by his late arrival, leaving Ada and Flora to sleep alone on the beach. After dragging them through the muddy forest, he doesn’t even offer Ada a proper ceremony, just a rain-soaked wedding photo.
As per usual, Neil is quite excellent, able to extract nuanced performances. There are moments when we begin to think that Alisdair is sympathetic to Ada’s inner pain, but we eventually realize that in actuality he’s struggling with jealousy. Brilliant. And when he breaks, we don’t condone his actions, but understand that at his core he’s a good, but timid, businessman driven insane with hurt, jealousy and longing.
–Harvey Keitel plays George Baines, Alisdair’s friend and colleague, a man who has befriended the locals and immersed himself in the local Maori culture. Initially utterly devoted to his friend, he begins to lose his way when he relents and takes Ada and Flora to the beach for her to play her beloved piano. Watching her play, utterly immersed in her playing, he immediately becomes taken with her and his loyalties shift.
Then he sneakily deals with Alisdair to get the piano in trade for some land, so that he may buy Ada’s affections with it. When she is forced to give him lessons, George bargains with her to give it back to her – one black key at a time. He becomes so infatuated with her that he is consumed by thoughts of her, cleans the piano, gets it tuned for her and even tries to bargain multiple keys at once to be closer to her.
He gives his heart to her so fully that he even begins to feel remorse for using her, and decides to give the piano back to her before they have concluded their deal; he feels that he is corrupting her and that he has shamed himself. It was never his intentions to manipulate her like this, but he was felled by his obsession. His love would be her undoing but, ultimately, it would also be her salvation.
Frankly, I’ve never really enjoyed Keitel’s screen presence. Aside from ‘Reservoir Dogs’, there are few films where I can say that I enjoyed his performance – he tends to bellow a lot and comes off as a hood. But he’s terrific in ‘The Piano’: he’s gruff, but his soft side comes to the fore. He reminds me a little bit of Elias Koteas in “Exotica‘, except better, more refined. It’s one of his best roles.
Despite the muddy, grey setting, ‘The Piano’ is alive with raw emotion and even a few poetic touches (ex: the finale, which leaves Ada’s former life behind with her piano). Writer-director Campion crafted an incredibly gorgeous motion picture fully supported by its script and performances. It’s a simple tale, but it’s been delivered in such a powerful and sensual way that it’s nearly impossible to wrench it from one’s mind.
…much like George couldn’t keep Ada out of his mind.
Date of viewing: August 17, 2014