Criterion Prediction #83: The Piano, by Alexander Miller
Title: The Piano
Director: Jane Campion
Cast: Holly Hunter, Sam Neill, Harvey Keitel, Anna Paquin, Cliff Curtis, Kerry Walker
Synopsis: Ada McGrath (Hunter), a willfully mute pianist, and her daughter Flora (Paquin) emigrate from Scotland to New Zealand to marry frontiersman Alistair Stewart (Neill). Ada’s sole means of expression is through her piano and withdraws from her new husband when he informs her that it’s too cumbersome to move into their home, handing it over to Baines. A love affair begins when Baines’ infatuation with Ada and her music thus complicating matters for all involved.
Critique: Campion’s emotionally felt and deeply textured tale of deviated love and passion is plush with earthy expressionism, taking the conventions of melodrama to the more lyrical side of its period-based narrative. There are some contrivances that arise, but the films thinner moments are a result of the material, an inherent drawback to the conventions of the genre.
The Piano shifts the currency of the period drama-cum-love story by imbuing the texture of the film with a ribald earthiness that seems to seep into the characters, bolstering their already elemental motivations. As if love were in league with wind, rain, and this is typified in Keitel’s Baines’ character, tattoo’s aside he takes on a feline, primate quality, it’s great to see Keitel get lost in his interpretation of Baines. Sam Neill humanizes the dastardly Alistair Stewart, and Holly Hunter is seething with energy. With a mute character, her charged emotional output is astounding; casting a piercing gaze, and perceptive expressions that speak volumes without words, you’d think she was a transplant from the silent era. The Piano also introduced Paquin; her fiery performance ensured that she’d enjoy a fruitful career. Both Hunter and Paquin won Oscars for their work here, solidifying the reputation of the film, giving way to two great careers.
Campion navigates the emotional perils of her characters’ elaborate feelings and motivations while simultaneously wielding a dominant influence over the scenery and locale, maximizing New Zealand’s coastal vibrancy. Ripples of fog seep into the frame with precise timing; the shoreline is lit and framed with great care, bookending the story and juxtaposing the hectic jungle terrain and the cloistered interiors. The Piano offers some astounding vistas countered with some unexpectedly flattering if erratic editing choices, particularly in the first act with its symbolic framing devices, designating the themes of familial roles, (especially those of women in marriage and motherhood) colonialism, alienation, displacement and, of course, identity as a whole. The Piano exudes beauty in every shot, but it’s slightly askew, making it all the more unique and alluring.
While the finale tends toward scenes that are a bit on the nose (what with Ada’s leg bound to the titular instrument) in tandem with some broad characterizations, the movie is dutifully compensated in its feminist import. The Piano’s sure-footed direction blends the eloquent with actively primal and bawdy naturalism. It feels like Campion, DP Stuart Dryburgh, and the cast of stalwart players are woefully in concert in creating this gripping if occasionally predictable story.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: Campion’s a fixture in the Collection and if this were a few years ago, I would have said her 1993 classic would be too big a property for them to acquire or Miramax (current distributor) wouldn’t want to part with it. The Criterion Collection has come a long way, and as a nerd who’s been surveying their catalog back when it was in the early hundreds and Spartacus (a Laserdisc transplant) was their only Kubrick film, and An Angel at my Table was the first of Campion’s work followed only by Sweetie shortly afterwards. The Piano would be a surefire seller in The Criterion Collection and seeing as it’s readily available on their Filmstruck channel, I wouldn’t be surprised to see this get a spine number sometime soon.