The Piano archive review: Jane Campion’s realm of the senses

Jane Campion’s virtuoso drama of a mute woman and her daughter’s silent defiance of patriarchy in 19th-century New Zealand is back in cinemas for its 25th anniversary. On its original release, our critic was overwhelmed by its emotional heft.

Lizzie Francke

from our November 1993 issue

Anna Paquin as Flora and Holly Hunter as Ada in The Piano

Anna Paquin as Flora and Holly Hunter as Ada in The Piano

For a while I could not think, let alone write, about The Piano without shaking. Precipitating a flood of feelings, The Piano demands as much a physical and emotional response as an intellectual one. As with the Maoris in the film who, believing the Bluebeard shadow play to be real, attempt to stop the old duke adding another wife to his collection, I wanted to rush at the screen and shout and scream. Not since the early days of cinema, when audiences trampled over each other towards the exit to avoid the train emerging from the screen, could I imagine the medium of film to be so powerful. Like Ada’s piano music, which is described as “a mood that passes through you… a sound that creeps into you”, this is cinema that fills every sense. The opening shot of delicate pink skin smoothed over the screen, as fingers hide eyes, suggests the membrane that the audience must burst through to make the painful and traumatic trek into the film’s dark, gnarled woods, finally to be released in the watery death/birth of an ending. Moving pictures indeed.

A film about silence and expression beyond language, The Piano resonates with the silences embedded deep in the texts of such 19th-century women writers as Emily Bronte or Emily Dickinson, women who hid scraps of their work under blotters, who hid themselves behind pseudonyms. They, like the strident composer Ada (Holly Hunter), were told that their creations were most irregular. In The Piano, Jane Campion feels her way around those echoing caves upon which they built their haunted houses of fiction. It is a virtuoso interpretation of that literary sensibility in a cinematic form, truer than any doggedly faithful adaptation of, say, Wuthering Heights. Indeed, The Piano puts us in the grip of the repressions of the 19th century – an era which saw polite society sheathing the ankles of piano legs with special socks in case they gave young men ideas. Such is the erotic object at the heart of the film.

Harvey Keitel as Baines

Harvey Keitel as Baines

Campion is playful with the period’s more bizarre neuroses. The film flashes with moments of indignant humour, such as when Flora (Anna Paquin) is ordered to whitewash some trees after she and her young friends are caught rubbing up against them in a playful – and unwitting – imitation of the sexual act.

But Campion is careful not to let the comedy take hold. Under less thoughtful direction Stewart (Sam Neill) could have been the buffoonish patriarch, hauling his white man’s burden behind him. He treats the Maoris like children, paying them in buttons and staking out his territory over their sacred burial grounds. After the shocking punishment he metes out to Ada, he informs her, “I only clipped your wings.” He is, as one Maori dubs him, an emotionally shrivelled “old dry balls”.

Yet this awful paterfamilias is invested with some sympathy. He is a confused man, who attempts to guy his world down in the chaos of change, who wants his music – and his sex – played to a strict time, so fearful is he of the other rhythms that might move him. If only he could listen, like Ada’s previous lover and the father of Flora, upon whom she could “lay thoughts on his mind like a sheet”. It is the communication of the gentle caress, the smoothing of nimble fingers over sheets and scales.

Conventional language imprisons Ada like the crinoline, which ambiguously also marks out her private, silent space (the skirt provides an intimate tent for Ada and Flora to shelter in the beach). Crucially, it is the written word that finally betrays her as she sends her love note to Baines, who cannot read but who knows the languages of those around him. Her arrangement with Baines (Harvey Keitel) has previously been based on a sensuous play of touch, smell and sound.

The Piano (1993)

Bodies become instruments of expression, while the piano smelling of scent and salt becomes corporeal. Baines’ massaging of Ada’s leg through a hole in her black worsted stocking is given the same erotic charge as her fingering of the scales. After such libidinous exchange, the marking down of her feelings for him with words only brings destruction, which is hastened by Flora, Ada’s little echoing mouthpiece (who is also the most compulsive and intriguing of fabulists).

What to make, then, of Ada’s sudden plunge after her lifeless piano, which can no longer sing, into the watery grave? Ada’s bid to enter into the order of language brings only death. Her will moves her finally to wave, not drown, to take life.

But there is the disquieting shadow of death cast on to the coda of the film. Brighter than in any of the previous scenes, she is seen in mourning grey, her head covered in a black-edged veil, tapping out notes with the silver artificial finger, which now marks her as the town freak. She is learning to speak but her voice rings the knell – “death, death, death”. At night she dreams of her husk, anchored to the piano, skirts billowing out like a balloon, floating in the silence of the deep, deep sea. Impossible to shake off, it is the final image in a film that weighs heavy on the heart and mind, that drags us down into our own shuddering silence.



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