Unafraid of confounding expectations, “The Piano” (selected theaters) is a tonic for the tired soul. Using familiar actors in ways no one could have expected, it makes a sweepingly romantic 19th-Century story seem almost avant-garde. More than that, it offers a complete way of seeing, an uncompromised view of the world by a writer-director whose command of the visual and emotional aspects of filmmaking is fearless and profound.
While the “a film by” credit is more used than deserved among current filmmakers, no one has earned it as completely as Jane Campion. In directing her own story of the mute Ada, an arranged bride who comes to a primitive New Zealand and powerfully affects the lives of two men, she shows a level of filmmaking assurance and assertiveness, a knowledge not only of what she wants but also of how to get it, that led to “The Piano” sharing the Palme d’Or at Cannes with “Farewell My Concubine.”
Not sharing her Cannes best actress award with anyone was Holly Hunter, whose unnerving performance as Ada reaches a once-in-a-lifetime level of intensity. Thoughtfully complementing her in an assured cast are Harvey Keitel and Sam Neill as the men whose lives she has an overwhelming impact on.
Set in 1852, “The Piano” successfully interweaves several thematic strands. A native New Zealander who now lives in Australia, Campion wanted to deal with her forebears, the early English settlers, and how they interacted with the native Maoris. She wanted to do a full-bore costume romance with echoes of “Jane Eyre” and “Wuthering Heights.” And she wanted to have an emotionally powerful woman, possessed of a remarkable will, as her protagonist.
Uncompromising women were at the center of Campion’s previous features, “Sweetie” and “An Angel at My Table.” Neither of those films were as plot-driven as “The Piano,” but Campion has transferred her empathy for determined folk, as well as her intuitive sympathy with the violent, deranging power of passion, from those films to this and used them to seriously push the outside of the envelope of a nominally more conventional format.
Campion has also brought with her an eye for what will make an impact that is like no one else’s. Schooled as an artist, she has a complete understanding of the language of images, and, working with cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, has come up with a series of rich, emotionally charged visuals, ranging from intimate close-ups to startling vistas, that are potent and unexpected.
“The Piano” in fact opens with an apt image for the interior person Ada is, an extreme close-up of what she sees looking out through fingers she’s held up to cover her eyes. As we are told in a brief voice-over, delivered in what Ada calls “not my speaking voice but my mind’s voice,” she stopped talking when she was 6. “No one knows why, not even me.”
Ada, however, doesn’t think of herself as silent, and not because of the use she makes of a private sign language and the enameled note pad she has for mundane communications. Ada has her piano and that is no small thing. Not an instrument to be played, the piano is the focus of her entire being. Not even her willful 9-year-old daughter (an eerie mirror-image performance by Anna Paquin) seems to finally mean as much.
Placed into an arranged marriage with a man who writes her that “God loves dumb creatures so why not me?,” Ada arrives in New Zealand from her native Scotland and finds it unimaginably wild and strange. A place of thick greenery and thicker mud, half Eden, half blasted heath, it is a raw, savage locale where the elements and the inconveniences threaten to be overwhelming.
Just as disturbing to Ada is Stewart (Neill), her husband, whose first reaction on meeting his bride is a confused “You’re small. I never thought you’d be small.” Personally awkward and driven by an acquisitive hunger for land, he does not begin to understand his imaginative, high-strung wife. And he refuses point blank to transport Ada’s piano from the beach it’s landed on to their new home.
Desperate for the touch of her instrument, Ada waits until Stewart is away and asks their neighbor Baines (Keitel) to take her back to the beach. A rogue Englishman who serves as a middleman between the Maori and the settlers and has gone native to the point of having his face tattooed, Baines also doesn’t know what to make of Ada. But her will turns his and he accompanies her, silently listening as she rapturously plays for what might be hours.
When Stewart returns, Baines suddenly offers to trade land he owns for the piano. And for lessons. Ada is understandably furious but the land-hungry Stewart insists, losing his temper and screaming, “You will teach him and I will see to it.” So, much against her wishes, Ada goes to Baines’ cabin and the music and the madness begins.
For what Campion is really dealing with in “The Piano” (rated R for moments of extremely graphic sexuality) is the infectious nature of passion. Ada’s obsessive desire for her instrument gradually creeps inside Baines and even Stewart, in turn intoxicating them with her playing and her heedless persona. The back and forth of attraction and self-protection between Ada and Baines and Ada and Stewart is overlaid with the headiness of mania and turns what might have been a conventional tale into something wild and sensually unsettling.
It takes exceptional acting to enable a story like this to take hold, and Campion has gotten it here. Keitel, usually known for violently masculine roles, adds an unexpected level of understated sensitivity to his work without losing any of its power. And Hunter, celebrated for her fast-talking firecracker roles, is mesmerizing as the silent Ada, doing her own playing of Michael Nyman’s expressive period score, her face a compendium of flinty looks that could bend steel. Even Neill, cast closest to type as the weak reed, brings unlooked for colors to the part.
A film that captures attention confidently and absolutely, “The Piano” is most remarkable in the way Campion serves traditional story points without compromising her own creative inclinations. Watching this film is like listening to Horowitz after a grade school recital, a reminder of what the cookie-cutter products of Hollywood at its worst make it easy to forget, that there is such a thing as innate, inborn talent for filmmaking and that Jane Campion has as much as the law allows. Maybe even more.
Holly Hunter: Ada
Harvey Keitel: Baines
Sam Neill: Stewart
Anna Paquin: Flora
Kerry Walker: Aunt Morag
Genevieve Lemon: Nessie
Released by Miramax Films. Director Jane Campion. Producer Jan Chapman. Executive producer Alain Depardieu. Screenplay Jane Campion. Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh. Editor Veronika Jenet. Costumes Janet Patterson. Music Michael Nyman. Production design Andrew McAlpine. Art director Gregory Keen. Set decorator Meryl Cronin. Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute.
MPAA-rated R (moments of extremely graphic sexuality).