The Piano Review

The mid-nineteenth century. Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter) has not spoken since the age of six. She is sent by her father from her native Glasgow to the South Island of New Zealand, accompanied by her young daughter Flora (Anna Paquin) and her beloved piano, into an arranged marriage with farmer Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill). Their first conflict is straight after they land on the beach, when Alisdair refuses to transport the piano to the house. A neighbouring settler, George Baines (Harvey Keitel) buys the piano and allows Ada access to it as long as she gives him lessons…

In 1993, Jane Campion’s star was in the ascendant. Following a number of well-received shorts, including the Cannes-winner Peel (1982), and a well-received TV feature, 2 Friends in 1986, her first cinema feature, Sweetie, premiered at Cannes in 1989. A black comedy of family dysfunction and eventual madness, it provoked extreme reactions pro and con. Campion’s films deal with outsiders, women who don’t or cannot conform to a male society, often to the extent of being found “mad”, and the results are never meant to be comfortable. An Angel at My Table followed. This adaptation of New Zealand writer Janet Frame’s autobiography was made as a three-part serial for television and was edited into a cinema feature. Then Campion made The Piano, which in terms of award and acclaim is the peak of her career to date. It shared the Palme d’Or at Cannes with Farewell My Concubine, with Holly Hunter winning Best Actress. Campion then went on to become only the second woman (of three to date) to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Director. The film received seven other nominations, winning for Hunter, Anna Paquin and Campion’s screenplay. (Strangely not nominated was Michael Nyman’s score, more emotive than his previous work, and a score which has found its way into the popular-classical repertoire.) It’s fair to say that Campion’s subsequent work hasn’t lived up to this. Her Henry James adaptation, The Portrait of a Lady felt like a complete misfire in 1996. It does have its defenders, and to be fair I haven’t seen it since its initial release and probably will give it another go. Holy Smoke, co-written with Campion’s older sister Anna, was flawed, but seemed like a return to form. I have yet to see In the Cut, which attempts to merge Campion’s explorations of the female psyche with a conventional psycho thriller: its reception was generally dire, but again it has its defenders.

Thirteen years on, The Piano stands up very well. Some will no doubt prefer the more restrained and “respectable” An Angel at My Table, which to me plays better in its original three-part form rather than as a two-and-a-half-hour feature. The Piano engages as soon as it begins, with Ada and Flora’s boat landing on a black-sanded beach. The film has a considerable sense of place: the beach and the bush are as much a part of the story as anyone else. The wind howls and rain falls: this is an elemental, inhospitable place in which the white settlers and the local Maoris struggle to make a living. Stuart Dryburgh’s cinematography is almost monochromatic: blacks, browns, greys, pale greens. If there was nothing else to this film, you remember the landscape as much as the figures in it.

Just for once, Oscar got it right: both Hunter and Paquin deserved their awards. Ada isn’t entirely mute: she has voiceovers at the beginning and the end. But it’s a tribute to Hunter’s performance that you don’t miss dialogue: her face does most of the work, and the rest is filled in by sign language. She also did her own piano playing. Ada and Flora exist almost in symbiosis: the daughter often speaks for the mother and interprets for her – she’s as verbal as Ada is silent. Anna Paquin, then aged ten and in her screen debut, delivers an astonishing performance which I would go so far as to call one of the great children’s performances of the last twenty years. Sam Neill has a difficult role, that would be too easy to make into a pantomime villain not unlike the one in the show the settlers put on during the film. He’s not a bad man, but one unable to understand his wife, or to deal with a manifest sexual frustration which drives him to his final actions. Harvey Keitel is not the most obvious casting for what the script – which consciously draws on the then-contemporary forms of Gothic romance and melodrama – sees as the masculine ideal Ada is attracted to, but he gives a fine performance, but with a fearless emotionalism not far short of his work in Bad Lieutenant. Campion would use him again, very differently, in Holy Smoke. Genevieve Lemon (who played the title role in Sweetie) and Kerry Walker play the local guardians of propriety, and actor/director Ian Mune plays the priest. Incidentally, the language coach for the Maori cast was Temuera Morrison, a year before his own breakthrough performance in Once Were Warriors.

The Piano has been released on DVD before, in the format’s early days. That was a release from EIV (who were the cinema distributors) which I never saw, but was apparently very poor. With a new distributor, Optimum, comes a two-disc special edition, encoded for Region 2 only.

First, the transfer, which is anamorphic and in the correct ratio of 1.85:1. As I say above, this is quite intentionally not the most colourful of films, but the transfer copes admirably with it. The colours are towards the darker end of the scale, but blacks are strong, and shadow detail is fine. I couldn’t fault it.

The Piano was made just a little too early to have a digital soundtrack, so the Dolby Digital 5.1 track is a remix of the original analogue Dolby Stereo track, which is also present on the disc as a 2.0 mix. The surrounds get considerable use in portraying all the fury of the elements in the early stages, and are used for ambience in the exterior scenes as well as for Nyman’s score. The subwoofer gets lighter use. There are two subtitle streams: one with English hard-of-hearing titles, the other simply translating brief exchanges of Maori and sign language. These can only be selected from the main menu, not via the subtitle button on your remote. There are sixteen chapter stops.

Along with the feature, Disc One has a commentary from Jane Campion and producer Jan Chapman. It’s not the most fact- or anecdote-intensive chat, nor very technical, but the two women do discuss the casting, plus the contributions of key crewmembers, and address the themes of the story and the worldwide reaction to the film, intended as mostly arthouse fare (like Campion’s previous work) but one which crossed over to a wider audience than has embraced her films, before or since.

The first menu item on Disc Two is a pair of interviews with Jane Campion and Jan Chapman. Actually, this should be two items as they are solo interviews, each with a single chapter stop. Campion speaks for 59 minutes exactly, Chapman for 16:51. These come from a French source: Campion’s name is subtitled “Réalisatrice” and Chapman’s “Productrice”, which this DVD helpfully subtitles for you. These are long, in-depth monologues to camera, possibly too long, and some of the information repeats that in the commentary. In similar vein is an interview with Michael Nyman (48:37). This will be of particular interest to musicians, as he describes how he wrote the music. Under instructions not to include “any of that Greenaway shit” (which is Nyman’s normal style), he produced a score that plays an emotional part in the film, rather than a purely structural one as it does in his work for Greenaway. He discusses how he derived the main theme from research into Scottish folk songs, and more than once expresses his admiration for Holly Hunter’s abilities as a pianist. These interviews are certainly exhaustive, but exhausting to listen to all at once, so further chapter stops might have been beneficial.

“The Making of The Piano” (15:07) is a featurette clearly made around the time of the film. Campion and Chapman both appear, noticeably younger than they are in the full-length interviews. It’s a bit of a shock to hear Holly Hunter’s native Georgia twang after watching the film. Sam Neill and Harvey Keitel are also interviewed, but not Anna Paquin or any of the rest of the crew. Finally, there’s the effectively mysterious theatrical trailer (2:27) and trailers for other Optimum releases: The Last Emperor, Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence and In My Father’s Den. None of the extras are subtitled, which is a shame.

Thirteen years on, The Piano is shaping up to be a key film of the 1990s. It’s not light entertainment, but it has an atmosphere and a power, not to mention an eroticism that is hard to shake off. It now gets a British DVD release worthy of it.

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