I did see The Piano at some point in the 1990s, when I was a teenager… but teenage boys are not the best crowd for Jane Campion movies. However, there was no escaping Michael Nyman’s music score for the film – it was everywhere. The haunting piano and saxophone arrangement (the theme inspired by a traditional Scottish melody, “Gloomy Winter’s Noo Awa”) made a huge impression around the world. The score was rerecorded many times and the theme was used by, among others, a Finnish symphonic metal band and an Italian rock noir band. Watching this movie again more than two decades later was very satisfying.
Traveling from Scotland to New Zealand
Sometime in the mid-1800s, Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter) and her young daughter Flora (Anna Paquin) are on their way from Scotland to New Zealand. It’s a long journey without much happiness attached to it; Ada has been sold by her father to a frontiersman, Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill), who needs a wife. Ada and Flora arrive on a beach together with a piano, delivered by a ship’s crew. That’s where Alisdair finds them. He brought a Maori crew and a friend, George Baines (Harvey Keitel), a retired forester who has become so accustomed to his new country that he’s tattooed his face, in the tradition of the Maori.
Alisdair learns that Ada has chosen not to speak and Flora serves as her interpreter. Initially, Alisdair refuses to move the piano from the beach, but George makes a deal, first with Alisdair… and then a more controversial one with Ada.
Inspired by a classic novel
It would have been embarrassing to find this film a disappointment now, since I was one of over 300 global critics consulted by the BBC in 2019 for a list of the best movies directed by a woman. The Piano was at the top of my list, somewhat of a gamble since I hadn’t seen it for so long. But Campion’s most famous film lives up to its reputation as a masterpiece. When writing the script, she was most likely inspired by a classic novel, ”The Story of a New Zealand River” (1920), written by Jane Mander, which chronicled an English woman’s arrival in New Zealand and her struggle adjusting to a very different life. It’s a striking set-up from the start, as Ada and Flora arrive with their piano, a symbol of civilization, to a wild place. At the same time, the white people who live there (apart from George) are not open to anything they regard as alien; Ada’s piano-playing comes across as strange to them. Conservatism reigns in this rough place and women are traditionally something to be conquered; that’s how Alisdair sees it, and George too, even if his methods are more careful and intimate.
Eventually, tenderness grows out of Ada and George’s unconventional arrangement, emotions that grow into something irresistible. These untamed feelings are matched by Stuart Dryburgh’s magnificent cinematography, capturing the majestic ocean, beaches and forests of this achingly beautiful but strange land. The film also shows how colonialists and the Maori co-existed at this time, not always easily. Just like the relationship between a man and a woman in the 1800s, it is a relationship of master and slave.
Hunter received many awards and a lot of praise for her silent but powerful performance as Ada, a strong-willed but childish woman who seems at times to be less mature than her daughter; Hunter’s rapport with Paquin is perfect, making them look more like sisters, which is probably what Campion was aiming for.
Campion originally wanted a darker ending for the film, but this one is unforgettable, showing that even if Ada and the piano are seemingly linked, there is still a future beyond what she believed was the passion of her life.
The Piano 1993-New Zealand-France. 121 min. Color. Produced by Jan Chapman. Written and directed by Jane Campion. Cinematography: Stuart Dryburgh. Music: Michael Nyman. Production Design: Andrew McAlpine. Costume Design: Janet Patterson. Cast: Holly Hunter (Ada McGrath), Harvey Keitel (George Baines), Sam Neill (Alisdair Stewart), Anna Paquin (Flora McGrath), Kerry Walker, Genevieve Lemon.
Oscars: Best Actress (Hunter), Supporting Actress (Paquin), Original Screenplay. Golden Globe: Best Actress (Hunter). BAFTA: Best Actress (Hunter), Production Design, Costume Design. Cannes: Palme d’Or, Best Actress (Hunter).
Last word: “Ada was originally written as a very tall woman, so obviously Holly [Hunter] didn’t come to our minds immediately. But she really insisted on being seen and, when we screen tested her, she just had that quality in her face and her persona that was exactly right. So that’s the interesting thing about casting; you might have a form that you think is right in your script, but there might be something of an essence in an actor that goes beyond that.” (Chapman, BFI)