The Piano Review
25 years after its initial release, Jane Campion’s The Piano is as stirring as it was in 1993. There are not many images in cinema which are as lasting in the mind as the abandoned piano on the beach, shrouded in a blue hue, with the tide lapping at its feet. Nor are there many narratives which are so seemingly simple, yet investigate such a complex web of emotion. The Piano, is set in the mid 19th century and follows a young mute woman (Ada, played by Holly Hunter) and her daughter as they are shipped from Scotland to New Zealand to live with Ada's new husband (Alisdair Stewart) a marriage arranged by Ada's father.
Ada’s muteness, and the consequential lack of dialogue between herself and Baines, does give way to a subtleness throughout the film that Campion plays with. Even the most seemingly dramatic moments are not met with screams or cries, instead Campion allows the movements onscreen to dictate moments of climax. Inseparable from its soundtrack - by the film’s narrative amplifies the need for sound which really encapsulates its protagonist's moods, feelings and desires. Not only does the score provide this, but the general sound design echos Ada’s emotional rollercoaster throughout the film.
In many ways, The Piano is a progressive film - particularly with its dialogue around Ada's refusal to be a victim of her time and circumstance. Ada is headstrong, brave and fearless - she frequently goes after what she wants with little care for the consequences that will follow. Even in her darkest hour, toward the latter end of the film, Ada does not cry or scream. She falls, and she sinks, but these are brief occurrences before she picks herself up and begins again. Even when the power is seemingly stripped away from her, Ada is in control. This is most obvious when she enters into her deal with Baines.
Ada's sexual desires are also placed at the forefront of the film, heralded as more important than Baines' attraction to her. To see Baines naked before we see Ada is key in understanding the sexual gaze within it, and this is amplified again by Baines placing Ada's sexual pleasure before his own, once she has consented to be with him. This feels radical, particularly at a time where female pleasure was rarely seen onscreen, and is still toned down even today.
In other ways, The Piano was not ahead of its time. Set against a backdrop of colonialism and bigotry, the film acknowledges its Māori characters but has a tendency to treat them as a homogenous group. Baines is a particularly painful character to watch in 2018 - a white man who likens himself to the people so much that he has adopted their facial tattoos. Baines is ‘othered’ because of this, but he is still a white character, played by a white actor.
The Māori men and women of the film are given a few sentences of comedic and insightful dialogue between them, but most of the time their thoughts about colonialism and the white settlers that have taken their land are ignored. There is a short discussion about the sale of the land between Baines, Stewart and then later on, an unnamed Māori man. Stewart cannot understand why the tribe want to keep it as they do not want to build anything on it, however to them it is sacred burial land. There is no further discussion on this though, and the whole conversation seems to serve as more evidence for Stewart’s lack of empathy towards others and strengthen the audience’s understanding of Ada’s lack of feeling for him. Whilst this works for the narrative, using the plight of an oppressed group of people without investigating it properly does leave a bad taste in the mouth. Campion, a New Zealander herself, must have been familiar with the oppression of the Maori people (the 1980s was a time of protest, particularly to change the name of the country to the Māori ‘Aotearoa’). In this context, it does not do its Māori characters any justice.
Campion's film is a cinematically powerful and narratively flawless work of art, deserves the critical praise it has been given. It is loved by critics and audiences alike, and is a shining example of how cinema can move us emotionally and can offer an escapist glance back into history whilst retaining a human element which audiences globally can relate. It is, therefore, disappointing that the same can not be said for the film’s treatment of its indigenous characters, and that the escapism is dedicated to white audiences only. It would be somewhat blinkered to ignore these issues with the film, or to put it down to being a symptom of the time it was made in.
The Piano is, however, still very much worth your time, either as a re-watch or a first watch for the 25th anniversary, but perhaps with a more informed and critical eye.
Editor's Note: While unavailable at the time of review, the 25th anniversary Blu-ray also includes: Film and audio commentary with director Jane Campion and producer Jan Chapman. The Piano at 25 - the making of The Piano, the Original Soundtrack CD, alternative artwork poster, and a booklet featuring new essays by critics Anna Smith, Kate Muir and Helen O'Hara.