Twenty-nine years after its initial release, and there’s nothing quite like Jane Campion’s The Piano. Sometimes we take for granted that filmmaking is an art form, considering the main drive of making movies is not creativity but business. Always has been, always will be; anything truly artistic tends to be incidental. The Piano, though, is without a doubt a work of Art — inscrutable at times, and not without its flaws, but constructed so confidently that they are, in the end, forgivable. Beautiful things stand out more sharply when they contain imperfections.
Within the film itself, Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter) is one such beautiful thing — an attractive Scottish woman who is both mute and the unwed mother of a daughter conceived out of wedlock. One would be enough to make her life challenging in the mid-19th century. Both mark her undeniably as a burden. How do you solve a problem like Ada? Marry her off to a farmer in New Zealand (Sam Neill) and ship her, her daughter and her piano away. Make her some other man’s problem.
Whatever the reason for Ada’s transportation (many can be inferred but none are given, a Jane Campion special), Ada does not fight it because she will have her piano with her. The piano is an extension of herself, the only way through which she can express herself purely. It may be coincidental that she stopped speaking as a child around the same time she began learning how to play; then again, it might not. She communicates with others through her daughter, Flora (Anna Paquin), but she survives because of her piano.
But pianos have no place in the wilds of New Zealand. The first thing her new husband does upon meeting her is to leave it behind on the beach. The first thing Ada does to defy him is to return to that beach with the help of Baines (Harvey Keitel), another frontiersman who is slightly less blind than her husband, just to play it. The film is aptly named after Ada’s piano. It is an object, a vessel and a voice that changes everyone who encounters it.
The inherent brilliance of The Piano is so simple: Neither Campion nor Hunter ever conflates Ada’s silence with compliance. The men in Ada’s life default to interpreting her muteness this way — even Baines, for all that he comes to love her — simply because it is more convenient than extending a strange woman any sort of empathy. They mistake her silence for a lack of will, not realizing that silence requires more will than any of them could possibly imagine. As such, Ada’s silence puts her in a unique position. She ostensibly has less control over her own life than other women who speak but, at the same time, she has almost complete control over the men who believe they control her. Baines and her husband force her into situations that no woman would willingly enter, but within those situations, she subjects them to her will as much as she is able. Campion does not flinch from depicting these power and gender dynamics as both peculiar and uncomfortable, if only because it’s fascinating to watch them unfold.
Above all, The Piano is not a romance but a ghost story, about the haunting nature of one woman’s silence and its profound effect on those around her. Ada is not a quiet spirit either but a loud one. She rages with her body, condemns with her eyes, cries with her fingers. Her silence is never more visceral than during the pivotal scene when you expect a scream to finally tear through her vocal cords, and the scream never comes. It’s a scene that is quite simply the best of both Campion and Hunter’s incredible careers.
The Piano also owes much of its success to its evocative score from Michael Nyman, as well as its setting. The untamed bush of New Zealand is a fitting foil for Ada; it is just as uncompromising and as vibrant as she is. Stuart Dryburgh’s camera does a remarkable job capturing just how uncanny New Zealand’s forests are, with misty blue low lights sharpening the green of the leaves until it becomes almost too much for your eyes, a vision of hostile beauty (made, it must be said, even more harrowing in 4K).
There is a connection to be made between the white man’s colonialism and patriarchal domination of women’s bodies to be made in The Piano, but Campion never does much more than present it without commentary. As with many other deeper meanings within her films, she leaves it up to the viewer to explore further, a distance that can be just as frustrating as it is rewarding. Here, it is mostly rewarding. Just like Ada, The Piano doesn’t make anything easy for those who watch it. But you watch anyway because it would be worse to never know.
The Piano is now available from the Criterion Collection on 4K UHD.