'The Piano' is not an easy film to forget. Those who have seen it often have a physical and emotional reaction to the memory of it, one of longing and pain and awe, which would make sense, as watching 'The Piano' is as much a visceral and bodily experience as it is a cinematic one. Even after 21 years, Jane Campion's astounding and award-winning film has lost none of its potency, and stands as one of the finest films of the 90s, a golden era of powerful character-driven dramas and stunning period films.
In the 1850s, Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter) and her young daughter Flora (Anna Paquin) are sent to the wilds of uncharted New Zealand when Ada's father marries her to landowner Alasdair Stewart (Sam Neill). Ada has been mute since a young age, and only communicates through Flora in a form of sign language they have developed. Emotionally however, she communicates through her piano, her most precious possession. When Alasdair refuses to cart the piano from the coast to their swamp-locked property, local worker George Baines (Harvey Keitel) buys it from him. Secretly he makes a deal with Ada, that she can buy back her piano from him, one key for every visit. Desperate for her piano back, Ada agrees, but quickly the visits evolve into a passionate love affair, and one that comes to a catastrophic end.
'The Piano' was one of those films that defined cinema in the 90s. I was only a kid when it was released in 1993, but I have strong memories of it being around and of my mum talking about seeing it. In a way, it's understandable why the idea of this film struck me even then, the publicity built around a single hypnotic image of a woman in a nineteenth-century black dress next to a piano on a deserted beach before a thunderous sea. That image alone encapsulates everything that needs to be said about the film, something I discovered as an adult when I finally saw it - a woman of one world left abandoned in another, with the gulf between bridged by an object of solace and expression.
In a parallel universe, 'The Piano' might have been a great lost novel from a romantic writer such as the Brontes, so much of it steeped in the textures and social expectations of the time in which it is set. Campion's world is one where femininity is under constant pressure from masculine forces, whether it be the unforgiving natural environment or the needs and expectations of Stewart or Baines. 'The Piano' is a powerfully feminine film, but femininity as an elemental force. In the hands of a male writer or director, it wouldn't have the same potency, and Ada probably wouldn't be as well-crafted a character. She stands in opposition of social expectations of her. Denied her ability to speak, she has found ways to express herself emotionally that others find strange or confronting, only finding escape in her piano and the sensuality of Baines. This energy is reflected in Flora, not just her daughter but her interpreter, who speaks with startling honesty that flies in the face of Stewart's traditional views on women and children. Campion is a master filmmaker, playing carefully with the power of contradictions, not just visually but emotionally as well. This is a female voice at the height of its powers.
Much like her protagonist, Campion forgoes dialogue and employs the power of image and sound to craft her narrative. Apart from opening and closing narration, we can only rely on image and sound to enter Ada's mind and follow her journey. The visuals in 'The Piano' are absolutely astounding and frighteningly real. These days anything can be created in a computer, but you can't help but be in awe of the sheer power of seeing Ada and Flora carried ashore on their arrival in New Zealand with a backdrop of titanic waves behind them. Stuart Dryburgh's cinematography, collaborating with Campion and editor Veronika Jenet, evokes not only the wild fury of New Zealand but the inner turmoil of Ada herself. Andrew McAlpine and Janet Patterson also create breathtaking work with their production and costume designs. The film is filled with images just as evocative as the piano on the beach, making it one of the most visually rich films of the last thirty years.
Watching 'The Piano' is as much a visceral and bodily experience as it is a cinematic one.
It is impossible to talk about 'The Piano' though without discussing Michael Nyman's score. A classical composer in his own right, Nyman was presented with an enormous challenge, not only to compose the orchestral score but music to be played by Ada herself. Rather than using any classical pieces, all the music played in the film is original, and all of it absolutely breathtaking, always the ultimate expression of the passion and feeling of its player. Nyman's score, especially his astounding main theme, have become iconic, the soundtrack easily one of the most popular of the 90s. Just the sound of the solo piano playing that theme, crippled with pain and longing, is enough to bring you to tears.
While both Harvey Keitel and Sam Neil are terrific in the film, each representing opposite sides of the same coin, one sensually aware while the other is sexually disabled, the film really belongs to its two female leads, both of whom won Oscars for their performances. The challenges faced by Holly Hunter were astronomical, not only a character caught in emotional turmoil, but one who is out of her depth in an environment utterly foreign to her, one who never speaks and one who has played the piano all her life. At no point does she falter, and wisely embraces Ada's explosive nature as well as her passionate. Hunter pulls off a sort of miracle with her performance, expressing so much without ever uttering a word. Just as miraculous is Anna Paquin as Flora, who just nine years old at the time somehow managed an Irish accent, very adult material and difficult environment with seemingly no effort whatsoever. Your jaw literally drops at the idea that this child could be capable of a performance so complex and intelligent, even after all this time. It is easily one of the finest performances ever given by a child in a film.
'The Piano' was a significant critical and commercial success, and come awards season received a tremendous amount of attention. Jane Campion was the first woman to win the Palm D'Or at Cannes for the film, and the film receieved eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. Unfortunately it was pitted against another masterpiece, Steven Spielberg's 'Schindler's List', against which no one stood a chance, but Hunter and Paquin won for their performances and Campion won for her screenplay. 'The Piano' represents that thrilling period in film history where films from Australia and New Zealand stood proud on the international stage, something that hasn't been repeated in this new century.
Even with all the words I've used to try and describe it, no amount can possibly do justice to 'The Piano'. This is a film you experience, one that you feel, a visceral bodily poem that resonates long after the credits roll. Revisiting the film again now for its twenty-first anniversary, I still found myself as captivated, horrified and breathless as I had before. 'The Piano' is Jane Campion's masterpiece, the great work of one of the world's finest directors. 'The Piano' is not a film easily forgotten, and that is a good thing. This is one film you'd never want to forget.