The Piano (1993) is a film by Jane Campion, which takes place around the 1850s, New Zealand, depicting the story of Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter) and her daughter, Flora (Anna Paquin). Ada’s father has arranged for her to marry an English landowner, Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill), so she embarks on an exhausting journey with Flora, from Glasgow to her new, faraway home.
The film opens with Ada’s arrival on a vast beach, scattered with all of their belongings; the beginning of a new life is daunting, and the first encounter with her fiancé starts on a wrong note. To Ada, who has been mute since childhood, the piano is her voice; it’s through the channel of music that she expresses herself, but as a practical man, Alisdair refuses to have the piano carried up the hill. In dismissing the piano, inevitably, he fails to reach Ada.
Ada: The voice you hear is not my speaking voice, but my mind’s voice. I have not spoken since I was six years old. No one knows why—not even me. My father says it is a dark talent, and the day I take it into my head to stop breathing will be my last.
The piano is left on the beach, at the mercy of the wind and rain. Soon after the marriage, one of the local workers, George Baines (Harvey Keitel) agrees to accompany Ada and Flora to the beach, so she can play the piano, and he falls for her; George buys the piano and has it brought over to his house. Under the pretense of demanding piano lessons from Ada, George makes a proposal: she can get her piano back, one piano key at a time, in exchange for intimacy—one key per visit.
The story is harsh as the world they live in, and this is where the direction of Campion and the captivating cast really counts; Ada is not portrayed as a victim, despite the appearance of being forced into a corner by George’s offer—a deal is made on her terms, and shows the intricacies of human emotion, as Ada finds herself falling in love.
The cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh takes on a character of its own, painting lush landscapes and interiors in pace with the story and the characters. The performances are powerful and full of personality, especially Holly’s; she doesn’t speak a word throughout the film, (her performance was acknowledged with an Academy award) and Anna is startling in her portrayal of Flora (Anna was also awarded an Oscar). The bond between Ada and Flora is a special one: Flora interprets Ada’s words (in sign language) to the others and has herself a strong personality. A beautiful score by Michael Nyman adds nuance to the film, and all the piano segments are played by Holly in character.
To conclude this article, I will leave you with the following poem, narrated by Ada at the end of The Piano:
(a poem by Thomas Hood)