One of the only 3 movies, directed by women to be nominated for the “Best Picture” Oscar, The Piano is a lyrical journey of a mute woman’s life in New Zealand where she is packed off and sent to along with her 9-year daughter and her beloved piano as an on-order bride. The woman, Ada (Holly Hunter) begins her story by saying that the voiceover that we hear is not hers but that of her mind for she was dumb for as long as she can remember. The movie starts by her being stranded on the beach with her daughter (Anna Paquin in a tremendous break through performance as the highly imaginative and unintentionally cunning Flora) till her husband Alistair(Sam Neill) can find the time to go and fetch her.
When he finally does, his entourage consists of George (Harvey Keitel with freakish Maori tattoos over his face and body) and other natives. Disregardful of his wife’s pleadings, he lets the piano be left behind on the beach because he doesn’t want to pay a little extra to the help for carrying it. But he can’t keep her from going back time and again until she strikes a deal with George, for the piano in return for lessons on the same.
But George isn’t interested in the lessons as much as in Ada and before long is making advances towards her. At first she resents it and acts repulsed by it, but slowly his passion overcomes her. When the affair is exposed, Ada’s existence is threatened and her choices questioned. All throughout, the piano becomes her voice and expresses her innermost desires as she is excited, enraptured and then deeply grieved by the way the affair goes. The end is both a little tragic and surprising but you should watch the movie for that.
More than anything, this is a movie about a woman’s heart torn between her duty and her passions. The ‘mute’ Ada is a metaphor for most of the women in the world whose voices are limited to the confines of their minds and hearts and who often find their wishes and opinions silenced by the bastions of male authority and societal norms. Cinematographed beautifully in the haunting wilderness of the gorgeous New Zealand, the images linger long after the movie is over. It might not be such a good idea to watch this movie with conservative crowds for it contains intensely passionate and all-clothes-barred scenes. However it is integral to the story telling and not just an excuse to parade some good bodies.
Jane Champion has superbly managed to portray the varicolored nature of a woman’s wants and elicit excellent performances from each of the characters. Hunter is in top form, communicating layers of emotions through her body and sign language, and of course the piano pieces which she has herself performed for the movie. Sam Neill is adequate as the disregardful and lousy but jealous and hopelessly possessive husband who needs to have control of Ada. Keitel, inspite of his ugly tattoos, attracts with his irrepressible charms and his passion for Ada is so scorching hot that it ignites the screen. But the most surprising package of the movie is the little Anna Paquin, who is the onscreen interpreter of her mother’s sign language, her constant companion and friend, and whose mischief leads to an unintended tragic consequence towards the end. She has played this part with an understanding, unusual for a child of her age. She is truly the discovery of this movie.
The Piano is for those who need to feel rather then see stories…it is poetic in the language of its silence and beautiful in its expression of that which is unspoken.