Jane Campion’s vision of a mute woman’s struggle during the early colonial days of New Zealand is brought to the screen in The Piano (1993)—a rain-drenched study of otherness at the edge of the world. At the time of its release, the film won global accolades and announced Campion as a major filmmaking talent; it was a turning point in New Zealand’s cinematic identity. Alarmingly, it remains the only film by a female director to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival.
Draped in dour Victorian dresses, Scottish woman Ada (Holly Hunter) and her daughter Flora (Anna Paquin) arrive at a desolate beach on the South Island sometime in the mid-nineteenth century. They are carried to shore by a crew of burly Europeans, who also haul their cargo onto land and arrange it as if there are rooms drawn onto the beach. A piano stands among the boxes; an elegant fragment of home.
The next morning, frontiersman Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill), his friend Baines (Harvey Keitel) and their Māori crew arrive to collect Ada and Flora. Stewart inspects his newly delivered wife as if she’s another piece of luggage: silent and something to be transported and secured. The group trek back to the colonial outpost through thick rainforest, leaving the heavy piano behind.
“What unravels is a ghostly, meandering love story with flares of violence and moments of surreal beauty.”
There’s little warmth between anyone at first—you can practically feel an icy wind coming off the Tasman Sea. Stewart is bitter about Ada’s inattention, while Ada yearns for her piano. Only Flora has the escape of her imagination and inquisitiveness in this new, alien landscape. Then Baines brokers a deal: he’ll save the piano from the beach if Ada teaches him how to play. What unravels is a ghostly, meandering love story with flares of violence and moments of surreal beauty.
Campion constructs the story with an emotional clarity that sees a white man’s world through a woman’s lens, paying attention to the lingering moments between lovers, abused and abuser, mother and daughter. Hunter plays Ada as a deeply scarred poet, tiny but ferocious, stranded in exotic forest. Paquin is fiery and not-overly precocious as Flora, the confidant and beacon of light to her mother. Neill and Keitel play more simplistic archetypes of masculinity: Neill is an impotent snob, and Baines is a callous-handed, but surprisingly tender, working man.
The most striking thing about The Piano is the contrasting physical textures that bind and separate characters: while the Europeans find shelter behind flat, dry walls, the wild foliage that surrounds is heavy with condensation; Flora and Ada’s long dresses, not meant for traversing root-tangled ground, drag through the mud; the delicately constructed piano, with its smooth varnished finish, is sprayed with saltwater and lashed with rain and wind.
The film’s soundtrack—the soaring moments of Michael Nyman’s score and Ada’s sensual playing of the piano—also contrast with the indelicate howling wind and whine of insects of the South Island. The plot is simple and secondary, compared to the complex textures Campion and Nyman paint.
In a 2012 Guardian interview about the creation of The Piano’s music, Nyman talks about his score being a sonic projection of Ada’s personality: “As Ada was a radical character, I thought she could have been a radical composer.” He says that the mix of “nineteenth century salon music” and the implementation of “twentieth century minimalist techniques” influenced the way Ada’s character developed. The score is essentially Ada’s voice: transcendent and timeless, peaking and troughing like white-capped waves.
Like in Campion’s recent Top of the Lake miniseries, bodies of water in The Piano are gateways to the unconscious. At the end of the film we see Ada’s piano on the sea floor; a lonely artefact. “At night I think of my piano in its ocean grave, and sometimes of myself floating above it,” she says. “Down there everything is so still and silent that it lulls me to sleep. It is a weird lullaby and so it is; it is mine.” Although there are other intimate relationships swirling throughout, the most potent love story is that of Ada and her instrument. It’s an emotional extension of her, which eventually becomes like a phantom limb—a missing but felt part of her history that cannot be easily forgotten.
The Piano by Jane Campion (1993), 114 minutes, New Zealand