Ada (Holly Hunter) is a mute from Scotland in the 1850’s. Her father has arranged for her to marry Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neil), a wealthy man in New Zealand. After the long journey, she, her daughter Flora (Anna Paquin) and her piano wait on the rainy beach for Stewart. It’s a long hike through muddy forest back to Stewart’s home, so the piano is left behind, against Flora voicing her mother’s protest. Later, when Stewart sells the piano to a local laborer, George Baines (Harvey Keitel), Ada is heartbroken and rightfully angry, but can do nothing. Baines makes a deal with Ada to earn the piano back by teaching him to play. That’s what he wants people to think anyway. He really wants Ada to play, for him, for herself. It isn’t long before their “lessons” turn into a passionate affair.
I find it fascinating to think about the relationships a mute woman can have. Her main portal to express herself to the world is by playing the piano. Ada and her daughter Flora communicate through sign language and many times Flora is speaking for her mother. With Baines, a connection stems from listening to Ada play the piano, from there it turns sexual and intimate. Then there is Stewart, the man Ada is supposed to have a relationship with, but he does not know how to listen to anyone, much less Ada. She attempts to be intimate with Stewart, she is opening herself, but Stewart and his proper ways shut himself down.
There are more barriers present than the simple subject of being mute. Stewart and his acquaintances are supposed to be higher class and try to maintain their stuffy, proper upbringing in the mud and rain of the New Zealand forest. Meanwhile, we see the native people more relaxed about everything, from children’s odd games of embracing trees to sexual jokes. As I understand it, that’s how Baines is freely able to become intimate with Ada and Stewart literally clinches his butt at one touch.
Writer and director Jane Campion tells this story with a subtle tone that I don’t think any male director could articulate like she does. The relationships between Ada, Baines and Stewart could have been interpreted completely different from a male perspective. Except possibly Flora, no characters have any ill motives and any wrong-doing was in passion. The character of Baines is especially well crafted, one false move and he could have easily fallen from the one man who can understand Ada to just that creepy guy who walks around the piano naked for far too long.
Hunter and Paquin both won Oscars for their roles as mother and daughter. For Hunter, she didn’t say a word (except in a distant voice-over), but instead her face, her actions the passion she can bring to the screen won the award. On the other hand, young Paquin pulled off an amazingly beautiful Scottish accent for Flora and depicted a confused girl whose foolish cunning unknowingly causes tragedy wonderfully.
The Piano is a quietly haunting film full of sexual nature and other thought provoking themes. I don’t imagine many men really enjoying this film, I doubt my husband would have made it past Keitel strolling nude around the piano. However, I found it stirring, thoughtful, beautiful and well worth the watch.
“The strange thing is, I don’t think myself silent. That is because of my piano.”