Winner of the Best Picture at Cannes, The Piano was a major international success with numerous awards that included Academy Awards for Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin and for the Original Screenplay as well as being nominated in five other categories including Best Picture and Director: :. Variety applauded the film, calling it ‘visually sumptuous and tactile’ and Geoff Andrew, writing in Time Out, said ‘it is the refusal to sentimentalise that makes this harsh tale of obsession so moving… and for once a modern film treats erotic passion honestly’ while Time magazine hailed it as ‘a triumph of dazzling movie art and canny show-biz heart.’ Writer and director Jane Campion described her aim in making the film as ‘wanting to do a love story where you could see the growth from fetishism towards eroticism and to more of a blend of love and sexuality.’
Set in the 1850s, the film tells the story of Ada (Holly Hunter), a mute Scottish widow who communicates through sign language, the music of her piano and her young daughter (Anna Paquin), who interprets her intentions and desires. Ada’s life is abruptly altered when her father arranges a marriage for her to Stewart (Sam Neill), a landowning settler who struggles against the harsh nature of New Zealand. His character seems to have been shaped by the chilly rain-swept nature of the country, where civilisation appears to be locked in a desperate fight against the elements in order to establish a foothold.
This loveless arrangement begins badly when Stewart refuses to take her piano to his home, leaving it abandoned on the beach. His neighbour, a settler who has adopted many Maori ways, Baines (Harvey Keitel), offers to buy the piano, exchanging land and the promise from Stewart that Ada will teach him how to play.
The piano lessons are, however, far from his mind and the intent less than innocent. Baines is soon exchanging further trades with Ada as he begins a slow seduction, offering her the chance to buy back her beloved piano, the trading becoming stages in an increasingly erotic courtship. The calculated nature of the seduction is also the start of a growing attraction and tenderness that erupts into grand passion and love. Observed by an embittered and enraged Stewart, Ada attempts to get a message to Baines only to be betrayed by her daughter, leading to Stewart taking cruel revenge.
Lyrical and poetical in tone, the film, scored by Michael Nyman (with Hunter playing the piano), did not find unanimous support among the critics but a raft of awards, a brilliant script and top quality acting – Neill as the repressed and betrayed Stewart; Hunter as the fierce, independent Ada; Keitel as the passionate romantic and Anna Paquin as the innocent caught in the midst of something that she can not fully comprehend – ensured the film its international success. Moving, erotic and superbly cinematic, the film is unlike any other costume drama with an erotic sensual core and characters that are both stubborn and introverted.
Holly Hunter as Ada McGrath
Harvey Keitel as George Baines
Sam Neill as Alisdair Stewart
Anna Paquin as Flora McGrath
Cliff Curtis as Mana
Kerry Walker as Aunt Morag
Tungia Baker as Hira
Ian Mune as Reverend
Genevieve Lemon as Nessie
Pete Smith as Hone
Te Whatanui Skipwith as Chief Nihe
Bruce Allpress as Blind Piano Tuner
Rose McIver as Angel
Neil Gudsell as Tahu
Jon Sperry as Taunting Man
Writer and Director: Jane Campion
New Zealand | 121 minutes | 1993
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