Starring: Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel, Anna Paquin, Sam Neill
Rated R for Moments of Extremely Graphic Sexuality
Art house films have a reputation for being super serious and obtuse. Usually it's an unfair assumption, but in the case of "The Piano" such is the reality. There's a lot of talking and "deep" material here, but it doesn't take a lot of thought to realize that it doesn't add up to much.
Ada McGrath (Hunter) has been a mute since the age of six. Although she uses sign language so her daughter Flora (Paquin) can act as an interpreter, or failing that, she writes on little slips of paper that she keeps around her neck. But her most precious avenue of communication is her piano. Only through playing it can she truly express herself.
Her father has married her off to a man named Alisdair Stewart (Neill), who lives in New Zealand. They have never met, and Alisdair is too self-centered to care about Ada's need for the piano, so it is left on the beach. He sells it to George Baines (Keitel), a British man who has embraced the Maori culture. Baines is willing to give the piano back to Ada, but she has to earn it. Ada has no idea of the price she must pay in order to regain possession of her beloved instrument.
The problem with this film is easy to identify (apart from the sleazy nature of the plot): it never says what the film is actually about. Is it about culture clashes? British repression? Sexual fulfillment? Forbidden love? Passion? The film certainly doesn't know. In fact, I'm not sure that writer/director Jane Campion does either.
Its refusal to state what the film is actually about isn't the only problem (the film suffers from pacing issues and the storyline feels more reprehensible the more you think about it), but it is the biggest. If we don't know what the point of it all is, how can we be involved? I know I bring of "The War Zone" as a point of contrast in just about every other review, but it does things that so many movies attempt and fail at. It is true that Tim Roth's film was incredibly oblique and messy. However, it stimulated the mind and gave us enough detail to allow us to form our own opinions. That doesn't happen here. It's all posturing and babble.
At least the acting is strong. Holly Hunter, a choosy actress who always excels, is brilliant. Apart from two brief voiceovers (one that opens the film and another that closes it), Ada doesn't speak. Hunter must rely on body language and particularly her expressive face to convey the complexities of her character. She succeeds admirably; Ada is a woman we know and understand. Her Oscar was well deserved, and not just because she did her own piano playing. Harvey Keitel is too low-key as Baines, but it's impossible for him to give a bad performance. Here, he was just misdirected. Anna Paquin made a stunning debut as Flora, despite the fact that her character is underwritten and Paquin only got the part because she was attending the audition along with her sister. In many ways, Flora is more mature than Ada, yet at the same time she has the heart and mind of a child. That Paquin captures this complexity despite the deficiencies in her role is astonishing. And Sam Neill provides solid support as a man who would give anything to break out of the rigid mold society has groomed him into becoming.
The film at least has the virtue of looking excellent. The cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh is excellent (he lost the Oscar to Janusz Kaminski for "Schindler's List." Ironically, Kaminski later married Holly Hunter), as is the production design by Andrew McAlpine. If I didn't know any better, I'd swear I was taken back to New Zealand in the early 19th century.
Sadly, good visuals and strong acting can't save a film as confused as this.