Rarely can any actor have managed to convey so much with so seemingly little as does Holly Hunter in The Piano. Her character, Ada, has been mute since early childhood, and not once in this intense, almost melodramatic film does she utter a single word. Yet without ever overstating herself by a single twitch of her face, or a single gesture, Hunter manages to give us access – startlingly intimate access – to Ada’s thoughts, reactions, and beliefs. She allows us to care deeply for this austere, severe woman. It is the central frustration of The Piano that Hunter is nonetheless contained by a screenplay that denies her, and us, the chance to maintain that intimacy through the film’s arbitrary and muddled final act. Ada finds closure, of some mysterious kind, but we by that time have been alienated from her by the perverseness of the narrative, and so we cannot join her in feeling satisfied with how this strange film ends.
Jane Campion’s film – and it is very much a personal project for the much-praised writer/director – is set in 19th-century colonial New Zealand (Campion’s home country). Ada has been sent there to marry a man she has never met, Alisdair Stewart (the excellent Sam Neill). She is deposited on a beach with the only two things she can show real emotion for: her young daughter Flora (Anna Paquin), and her sole mode of personal expression – her piano. Alisdair, who is sensitive, but firmly practical, refuses to have the piano lugged through the jungle to his house. Left on the beach, it is claimed by another local man, George Baines (Harvey Keitel). Baines asks Ada to teach him how to play it, and suffering profoundly under the absence of her piano, she agrees. Yet what Baines really wants is simply to hear her play, for he is aroused – both spiritually and sensually – by her music. Soon he is asking her to let him do other things to her while she plays. He sells the piano back to her, one key at a time, in exchange for a series of erotic favours.
The symbolism is as overt as this description makes it sound. As an allegory of woman subjected to and imposed upon by man, the film is effective: one man refuses, for reasons of convenience, to let a woman use her voice; another man wants to hear that voice, but reduces it to a sexual quantity. Both men, in their differing ways, deny this woman her independent identity and her self-expression.
Hunter is frighteningly good at showing us the awfulness of this humiliation: with each successive infringement of Ada’s dignity, she shows us her contempt, her outrage, at being thus treated.
And all the while she endures, stoically, knowing she has no alternative but to submit.
Paradoxically, however, in the film’s second half Ada’s behaviour begins to be inscrutable, and, it must be said, seems frequently arbitrary. She does several things that simply do not correlate with what we have been to led to understand of her feelings and desires. At this point it becomes hard to escape the suspicion that Campion is deliberately obscuring Ada’s motives. Perhaps this is to challenge us by placing us in the same position as the film’s two key men. When we do not understand Ada ourselves, will we be any more accepting of her than Alisdair and George are? Yet there is also the hint of an implication that Ada simply exists on a superior, more pure emotional plane to those around her, and that if her decisions are not comprehensible to us, we ought simply to recognise that we cannot hope to understand her, and question no further. This alienates the viewer, and the result is that the dramatic denouements of the film’s final scenes carry far less of an impact than they should.
It is now more than twenty years since The Piano won the Plame d’Or at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival, and it remains a critical favourite.
Yet it belongs in that small and difficult class of films that cannot be said to be successful works of art, but which are still worth seeing for the sake of their ambition and for certain distinctive virtues. Chief among those, in this case, are the central performances. Neill and Keitel are as good as they have ever been. And Hunter, above all, is remarkable. Silent, cold, and hard as iron, she nonetheless succeeds in being persuasively, shockingly, nakedly human.