From Socialist Review, No. 170, December 1993.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Dir: Jane Campion
It’s easy to be sceptical when film critics start saying ‘best film ever’ but with The Piano you can understand why people go overboard with their praise.
Everything about The Piano is top quality: the script, the acting, the music, the directing. Best of all though is the story itself. It’s about the 19th century Scottish colonists of New Zealand.
Ada (Holly Hunter) has been mute from the age of six, for no apparent reason. When she stopped speaking the piano became her primary means of expression.
She is packed off from Glasgow to New Zealand, to an unknown country and an unknown man, courtesy of an arranged marriage. Her new husband Stewart (Sam Neill) insists her piano is too difficult to move and so it stays on the beach.
Speaking via her nine year old daughter, Ada persuades the tattooed Baines (Harvey Keitel) to save her piano from the sea. After watching her play it on the beach, he is captivated and the obsessive spiral begins.
Baines strikes a deal with Ada’s husband and swaps a parcel of land for the piano. Part of the bargain is for Ada to give Baines piano lessons. He wants to indulge his erotic fantasies and Ada agrees so as to regain possession of her piano.
Meanwhile her husband is tiptoeing about, confused as to why Ada is indifferent to him. He seeks advice from the comical old women, desperately trying to maintain Presbyterian decorum in the wilds of New Zealand.
The film is full of hilarious culture clashes. The stiff and stifling manners of the Presbyterians (God’s frozen people – they wouldn’t swing if you hung them) contrasts with the open sexuality and honesty of the Maoris.
Director Jane Campion shows how Stewart tries to maintain ‘civilised’ European politeness and how this unravels violently. The attempt to hold his emotions in check, to do the ‘proper’ thing, eventually makes him snap. When Stewart’s jealousy breaks through the dam, it’s as powerful as the passion of Ada and Baines.
While the costumes and trappings are similar to the crop of period films made by Merchant-Ivory, The Piano has none of their niceties. Can you imagine those idyllic productions getting to grips with how you take a piss while wearing those ridiculous dresses complete with hoops?
The Piano is a lush and original movie. It has beautiful piano music (by Michael Nyman), the colours and imagery are very sensuous, and the fleshing out of the characters and the story, with minimal dialogue, make it unmissable.
Last updated: 2 March 2017