Released in 1993, The Piano won Academy Awards for Best Original Screenplay for Jane Campion, who was also the director, Best Actress for Holly Hunter, and Best Supporting Actress for Anna Paquin. The Piano also won the Palme d’Or, the highest prize given at the Cannes Film Festival. The film is rated R for moments of extremely graphic sexuality. I don’t know why they didn’t include mention of an extreme violent act in that explanation, as that is what truly deserved the R rating.
The film is alternately depressing, erotic, tense, cruel, and loving. If I could describe it for you in a term often used for a particular genre of novel, I’d say it is literary, and metaphorical at times. Jane Campion has written a screenplay that goes deep beneath the surface of what we see occurring between the characters. It’s a story of love, jealousy, rage and perseverance in an extremely harsh climate in 1850’s New Zealand.
Ada (Holly Hunter) is a mute Scottish woman whose father is marrying her off to Stewart (Sam Neill), a landowner in New Zealand. She and her young daughter Flora (Anna Paquin) arrive on the tumultuous shores with their few belongings, including Ada’s cherished piano. Ada does not speak, and expresses herself through playing her piano. She uses some type of sign language with her daughter, or writes messages to those around her when she wants to communicate something to them.
She is not enamored of Stewart who initially gives her some distance in order for her to get to know him and hopefully develop some affection for him. A neighbor, quite friendly with the local Maori tribes people, is George Baines (Harvey Keitel). He is attracted to Ada, and this leads to events that change everyone’s lives.
The forests of New Zealand are wet and dreary, filled with mud from downpours of rain, and hardly any sun. It is not a hospitable environment at all, and it looks as if no one ever really dries out. Despite this, Ada and Flora attempt to make the best of it. In contrast, the scenes set ocean side are particularly beautiful, Ada playing the piano while Flora cavorts about doing cartwheels and making patterns in the sand with stones.
Both actresses give really outstanding performances. Holly Hunter doesn’t say a word except for brief voice over’s at the beginning and end of the film. Her actions and facial expressions have to tell her whole story, as does her piano playing, which was actually Holly playing the piano. Anna Paquin has such a strong well-developed character in Flora, and she was only nine years old at the time. Her emotional outbursts contrast nicely with the stolidity of her mother Ada. We never really hear the truth about Flora’s father, or at least I suspect we haven’t, as Flora is a bit of a storyteller.
I have found that people either love or hate The Piano. It’s all up to the subjective tastes of the viewer.