Piano, The (Australia/New Zealand/France, 1993)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The Piano is about passion, the most basic and primal element of human nature. No matter how thick the veneer of civilization is, or how deeply-buried beneath layers of social repression those latent emotions are, passion ultimately cannot be denied. This is something that the three principals of this movie learn in various, often unpleasant, ways.

In the mid-1800s, Ada (Holly Hunter) arrives on the stormy shores of New Zealand, a mute bride sold by her father to a British emigrant named Stewart (Sam Neill). In addition to a normal assortment of baggage, Ada brings with her eight-year old Flora (Anna Paquin), her illegitimate daughter, and a piano. Initially, Stewart declares that the piano is too bulky to move from the beach, and resists bringing it to his house despite Ada's wordless pleadings. Next, he sells it to fellow Englishman Baines (Harvey Keitel), a man who has embraced the local Maori ways. In addition to the piano, Baines wants a reluctant Ada as his teacher. When he offers her a deal to get the instrument back, she is unprepared for the price she must ultimately pay.

The Piano has powerful emotional themes resonating through it, all dealing with the release of repressed passion. Baines, who has embraced the native Maori methods of living, no longer clings to the values of British society, and is therefore quite capable of expressing himself freely -- which he does, albeit in some strange ways. Stewart, however, views the Maori with suspicion and hostility and, in clinging to the tenants of English society, refuses to allow himself to feel until one violent moment when everything comes pouring out. Ada, hampered as much by her lack of voice as by social pressures, is yearning to break free, and only through Baines does she find the courage to do so.

Jane Campion's story is often stirring and occasionally gut-wrenching; the latter perhaps to a fault. There is a single visceral scene in this movie which becomes the most stark and enduring image taken from the theater. While definitely an expression of passion, this is perhaps not intended as the single defining moment of The Piano, although it may be remembered as such.

Symbolism abounds, and most of it is clear enough for even the casual viewer to grasp. Ada's piano is obviously more than a source of music -- it is her voice, her only means of expressing herself. The Maori society represents the release of inhibitions. Stewart's rejection of this, like Baines' acceptance, defines who he is.

The three main actors give dazzling performances. Everything previously written about Holly Hunter is true. To be able to convey this much energy and emotion without ever speaking a word (except in a pair of short voiceovers) requires someone of astonishing talent. Hunter's Ada is every bit as powerful a presentation as Anthony Hopkins' Stevens in The Remains of the Day. Harvey Keitel is as good, although the complexities of his character don't allow for quite as obvious a standout performance. Sam Neill has the most incomplete material to work from, but he does all he can with Stewart. Young Anna Paquin shows capabilities far beyond her years. She is believable in her role, and an asset to the film.

As affecting as Campion's basic story is, both characterization and technical presentation are lacking. Taken in tandem, these flaws prevent The Piano from attaining its full potential. The editing is choppy, at times causing the narrative to become disjointed or confusing. More than one transition is jarringly abrupt.

While Ada is as fully-rounded as she can be, the others all have elements missing from their personalities. Stewart never attains three-dimensionality, despite Sam Neill's best attempts, and Baines is occasionally little more than a sounding board for Ada's emotions to reverberate off of. Flora's personality undergoes a radical shift that, at best, is only partially-motivated by what we see on screen.

The Piano is a solid motion picture with a universal message and occasional splashes of genius, but it is remarkable only as Holly Hunter's performance is concerned. While it's true that individuals will attribute a different importance to the various flaws, there exists the possibility that anyone going to see The Piano with the expectation of watching the best movie of the year, will leave the theater disappointed.

Piano, The (Australia/New Zealand/France, 1993)

Director: Jane Campion
Cast: Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel, Sam Neill, Anna Paquin
Screenplay: Jane Campion
Music: Michael Nyman
U.S. Distributor: Miramax Films
Run Time: 2:01
U.S. Release Date: 1993-11-19
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations, Nudity, Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1