In the middle of the 19th century, Ada (Holly Hunter) is a Scottish widow who has not talked since she was six years old. Her silence veils a deeply passionate and willful nature. She speaks in sign language with her nine-year-old daughter Flora (Anna Paquin) and writes messages on a tablet hanging from her neck. To give Ada a new lease on life, her father arranges a marriage for her with Stewart, a landowner in New Zealand.
When mother and daughter land in this wild and primitive place, the new husband is not there to greet them. Ada resourcefully builds a makeshift tent on the beach out of a hoop skirt. When he finally arrives, Stewart (Sam Neill) gets himself into even deeper trouble with Ada by refusing to transport her beloved piano to their home in the bush.
This Victorian landowner believes that since God loves dumb creatures, he must do so as well. Stewart is quite mystified by Ada's anger and put off by her symbiotic relationship with Flora. But what hurts him most is her refusal to consummate their marriage.
Meanwhile, Gaines (Harvey Keitel), Stewart's illiterate estate manager who has Maori tattoos on his face, offers to trade some of his land to his boss for the piano, which he retrieves from the beach. He then asks Ada to give him lessons. She learns that he will sell the piano back to her in exchange for amorous favors. A glimpse of her shoulder, a caress of her leg are turned into a slow erotic courtship. At first, Ada is repulsed by this crude man's advances. Then her desire is aroused and finally her passion.
The Piano is a continuation of Australian director Jane Campion's exploration of the unique ways women express soul. In Sweetie (1989) she examined the edgy relationship between two sisters, and in An Angel at My Table (1990) she probed the struggle of New Zealand writer Janet Frame to assert her creativity.
In the best performance of her career, Holly Hunter conveys Ada's multidimensional journey into passion. She speaks her mind through the music she plays, which one character describes as "a mood that passes through you...a sound that creeps into you." Gaines is the first to recognize her passion. Together, they make music of another kind. Stewart, on the other hand, is frightened of his new wife's intensity and put off by her efforts to have her own way.
The Piano is the most sense-luscious film to reach the screen in years. It shows how soul is revealed through the fusion of body, desire, and feeling. In a poem titled "Life By Drowning," Jeni Couzyn has written:
The way toward each other is
through our bodies
Words are the longest distance
you can travel
So complex and hazardous you
Lose your direction.
Ada, like Helen Keller, becomes a voluptuary of her senses. Through touch, sight, sound, and smell, she finds her direction and opens the door to a new way of being.
In an interview, writer and director Jane Campion has noted: "I have enjoyed writing characters who don't have a 20th century sensibility about sex. We've grown up with so many expectations that the erotic impulse is almost lost to us but these characters have nothing to prepare them for its strength and power. I think the romantic impulse is in all of us and sometimes we live it for a short time, but it's not part of a sensible way of living. It's a heroic path and generally ends dangerously. I treasure it and believe it's a path of great courage. It can also be a path of the foolhardy and the compulsive."
The path of passion in The Piano has its consequences. Young Flora is the first to realize that something is going on between her mother and Gaines. She lets her stepfather know that there are no sounds of the piano during Ada's lessons. Stewart goes to Gaines's cabin and witnesses their lovemaking. In a fit of rage, he locks his wife up. His sexual jealously gets the better of him when Ada escapes and tries to reach Gaines. He metes out an especially cruel punishment to Ada.
Eventually, she, Gaines, and Flora leave for a life elsewhere. During a dramatic incident at sea, Ada chooses life over her attachment to her piano. In the final scene, she has begun to talk. "I am quite the town freak, which satisfies," Ada says. Her idiosyncratic and passionate soul has, at last, found its natural and perfect expression.
A companion book to The Piano:
The evocative quality of the screenplay is one of the strengths of The Piano. Now Jane Campion's script is available in The Piano (Miramax Books/Hyperion, $10, ISBN 1-56282-703-0). The book also contaans the director's notes, photographs from the set, and comments from the cast and crew. This is an essential resource for anyone who wants to consider the multiple meanings of this film.