1993

Film #369: The Piano (1993)

We move on now to two films that are connected by the fact that both of their protagonists are fans of tinkling the ivories. However their similarities don’t end there as both films are set in Australasia, both feature central characters with a disability and both saw their lead performers collect awards at that year’s Oscars.

The Piano takes us to New Zealand of the mid-19th century as we see Scottish Ada McGrath and her young daughter Flora travel from Scotland. Ada has been mute since she was a child but has been promised in marriage to frontiersman Alisdair Stewart. Early on in Jane Campion’s film its established that Ada’s piano is the most important thing to her and she uses it to let out her emotions. So it’s a bitter blow to Ada when Alisdair decides that the instrument is too heavy to carry and too big for his small house. Eventually Ada’s piano is bought by Baines, a man who is sometime in Aisdair’s employ and who is seemingly torn between the area’s white population and the Maori natives. Baines claims he wants piano lessons but this is later revealed a simple rouse to bribe Ada into giving her piano back. It’s made clear that Baines is sexually frustrated and often walks round nude in front of Ada or gets her to pitch her skirt up. Somehow Baines’ presence in her life has a positive effect on Ada and she misses him watching her when she finally gets the piano back. The stage is then set for somewhat of a love triangle as Alisdair soon learns of the relationship tht has started between Baines and his wife. Alisdair later takes some very bloody revenge against Ada which I found to be a very shocking yet memorable moment. Eventually Ada is able to decide who she truly wants to be with even though she is forced to lose her piano in the process.

Other than being a film that won a few Oscars, I knew very little about The Piano prior to watching it. I did find it hard to get into the film partly due to the fact that the main character didn’t speak however this later became one of The Piano’s most positive features. My previous experiences with Jane Campion’s work had been incredibly poor as I didn’t warm to her 2009 biopic Bright Star or the TV miniseries Top of the Lake. However the artistic direction added to the overall feel of the film with Stuart Dryburgh’s cinematography perfectly capturing the Kiwi exteriors and adding to The Piano’s period feel. Although we’re into the mid-1990s by this point, Jane Campion’s nomination for Best Director was the only second time that a woman had received recognition in that category something I find hard to believe. The Piano was a film that featured strong female characters both behind and in front of the camera so I’m glad that Campion won an award for her original screenplay.
Holly Hunter’s performance as Ada was truly captivating and she managed to communicate her character’s feelings beautifully without ever opening her mouth. Although I felt that Hunter should have won Best Actress for her turn in Broadcast News her win for The Piano was more than deserved. The film’s third Oscar went to young Anna Paquin who, in her debut performance, more than held her own opposite much more experienced co-stars. Paquin shared great chemistry with Hunter and you could really believe that the pair were mother and daughter. For a child star, Paquin was never annoying and at times was my favourite thing about the film. I was less keen on the male performances with Sam Neill being lumbered with the thankless part of Alisdair and Harvey Keitel struggling to settle on an accent for Baines. One of the film’s most memorable attributes was Michael Nyman’s haunting score, which was stuck in my head for days after watching The Piano, so I was shocked to learn that he didn’t win an Oscar for it. Overall, The Piano was beautifully filmed and included two fantastic performances but still felt a little uneven for me to truly enjoy every minute of it.

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