It is hard to believe that Palme d’Or winner The Piano is twenty years old this year, specifically given its timelessness, Michael Nyman’s evocative score (The Promise can be sampled here) and the seductive panoramic allure of a Gothic New Zealand. One which remains mesmerising upon a multitude of re-visits; frozen forever on screen.
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) wealthy 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 Jane Campion presents events in chronological order, much like a piece of music allowing for this story to have an introduction, middle and resolution. Campion, a filmmaker, with a propensity for engaging feminist interest through a female protagonist, desire and gaze does not disappoint with Ada. One would be forgiven for thinking the character is a product of the oppressive, Victorian society she inhabits, after all she is objectified from the start; sold into marriage, left on a beach much like her piano; her silence often mistaken for obedience. One could argue that this is not the case, Ada exists on the fringes of society; her self-assured identity and sheer wilfulness make her one of the most fascinating characters committed to celluloid. Her austere costume (designed and created by Janet Patterson) functions for and against her femininity (Bruzzi, 1997). 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.
The piano and Ada are inextricably linked and the bound motif represents her voice, sexuality, passion, mood and freedom; a tool that can be, and is, used against her. 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 to 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 Māori tattoos which adorn his nose. These markings add a sexual aggressiveness to his ‘othered’ facade; however, one would argue that it is his whiteness and lack of education which makes him belligerent, specifically in relation to the Māori people in this text. Rather ideologically, they display a naïve innocence which encourages the idea of Pākehā as the savage. Neill and Keitel give outstanding performances as the uptight Stewart and outsider Baines, men who conform and subvert type/expectation as much as the females in the diegesis. It is, however, Holly Hunter’s film. An accomplished pianist, she 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 or Art film, 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: Bluebeard (Charles Perrault) but Rebecca (Daphne du Maurier) in its portrayal of a female 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. It showcases the directorial talent of ‘Kiwi’ Campion and her cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh who insist upon giving the audience a distinctive, sexually provocative spectacle; a sumptuous production which depicts the uneasiness of the New Zealand landscape with authenticity and, even occasional, mirth. The Piano remains a gorgeous and enigmatic masterpiece, one which continues to get better with age.