Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter) is sold into marriage by her father and sails from Scotland, across rough waters to New Zealand where she and her young daughter Flora (Anna Paquin) are to begin a new life in the home of new husband (and father), and emotionally frigid landowner, Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill). Ada is mute and relies upon sign language, a small notebook contained in a locket around her neck and, above all else, her piano and music to speak for her. Alisdair, not only, dismisses the importance of the instrument to his new wife but gives it away to employee George Baines (Harvey Keitel) who, upon hearing Ada play, agrees to sell it back to her one key at a time.
Writer-Director Campion, a filmmaker with a propensity for engaging feminist interest through a female protagonist, desire and gaze does not disappoint with Ada. While some may misinterpret her as a product of the oppressive, Victorian society she inhabits, objectified from the start, sold into marriage and left on a beach much like her piano; her silence often mistaken for obedience. One could argue that in actuality Ada exists on the fringes of society; her self-assured identity and sheer wilfulness make her one of the most fascinating characters of Campion’s creation. Her austere costume (designed and created by Janet Patterson) functions for and against her femininity. These items often restrict her movements yet at other times rescue her from unwanted exposure, pawing male hands or indeed provide a place of shelter; a hoop underskirt is utilised as a makeshift tent in the opening sequences. The bonnet is a symbol of submissiveness but tends to be discarded more often than not.
Power struggle appears to be the main theme of the film displayed through sexual politics, patriarchy and colonialism. Alisdair is the white settler whose link to the Māori people is Baines, a coloniser who has adapted the ways of the native (he still has tartan items displayed about his home pertaining to his Scottish roots) but has attempted to assimilate into NZ culture with his clothing, wild hair and tā moko which adorn his nose. These markings add a sexual aggressiveness to his ‘othered’ facade; however, his whiteness and lack of education makes him belligerent, specifically in relation to the (ideologically homogenised) Māori people he has chosen to live amongst. He, too, never quite belongs.
Neill and Keitel give outstanding performances (in a cast full of NZ film stalwarts) as the uptight Stewart and outsider Baines, men who conform and subvert type/expectation as much as the women in the diegesis. It is, however, Holly Hunter’s film. The piano and Ada are inextricably linked. The instrument represents her voice, sexuality, passion, mood and freedom; a tool that can be – and is – used against her. Hunter, an accomplished pianist played all musical pieces and, allegedly, insisted upon communicating through sign language on and off set as the film was made. In fact save for Ada and her ‘mind’s voice’ at the film’s commencement and end, one forgets Hunter can really talk at all.
While The Piano can be described as a Gothic melodrama, at its narrative heart it depicts a mother-daughter relationship, offers up ideas of the absent father and draws parallels not only with the play within it: Perrault’s Bluebeard but also Du Maurier’s Rebecca in its portrayal of a woman who leaves home and enters a new world dominated by a male figure. It deals with concepts of freedom, affronting destiny, definition of the self, re-birth and the sexual-political appropriation of ambiguities, while showcasing the talent of Campion and her cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh. They insist upon giving the audience a distinctive, sexually provocative spectacle; a sumptuous production which depicts the unease provided by the New Zealand landscape with authenticity and, even occasional, mirth.
Given its timelessness, Michael Nyman’s magnificently evocative score and the seductive panoramic allure of a Gothic New Zealand, it’s hard to believe The Piano is 25 already. It remains extraordinary, a gorgeous and enigmatic masterpiece which only gets better with age, except in its depiction of its Māori people.