There will no doubt be a generation who will have been introduced to New Zealand director Jane Campion by way of Top of the Lake, which arrived on British television screens in 2013. This compelling, psychologically astute, and beautifully shot mini-series dealt with similar issues found in her 1993 film The Piano.
Ten years after The Piano, Campion co-wrote and directed In The Cut, a gripping though ultimately under-rated film (probably due to the oddly cast, but surprisingly good performances by both Jennifer Jason-Leigh and Meg Ryan) also dealing issues of female subjectivity and male violence.
The Piano is a beautifully shot slow-burn film following the mute Ada McGrath (expressively played by Holly Hunter) and her young daughter (True Blood’s pre-adolescent Anne Paquin) as they land in colonial New Zealand for Ada’s arranged marriage to an emotionally distant landowner, Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill). Trapped in a silence that we are led to believe is hysterical in nature and due to some unexplained early trauma, Ada is dependent upon her notepad, her daughter (the only other present versed in British Sign Language), and her piano for self-expression.
It is this piano that her new husband immediately neglects to see the importance of, opting to leave it behind on the beach despite her protestations; his gruff, illiterate, “gone-native” neighbour George (Harvey Keitel), however, doesn’t miss a beat and clocks its importance to the new arrival. George’s emotional intelligence on this point sets up the emotional tensions that drive the film forward.
Themes of Victorian repression in contrast to the wild and natural world suffuse the film. These are captured in stunning images of the piano, symbol of civilisation, marooned on the tumultuous beach; the awkwardly costumed women in their giant dresses traversing the mud of New Zealand’s rainforests; and the tiny hole in Ada’s stocking, revealing the small disk of her skin that so steals George’s desire. This is a film about male colonialism, both his careless conquest of nature and consequent subjugation of native peoples, alongside his domination of women born from his own insecurity.
These themes are played out intensely by the characters of the film. They make the ideas accessible, though their archetypal nature can at times be distancing. Because of this, though a beautiful film, The Piano can be plodding at times and requires a rather meditative approach (one that is becoming more foreign to contemporary film-goers).
Though the cinematography favours a big screen viewing, the Blu Ray release does offer increased enjoyment, particularly with regard to the sound production, which is true artistry in the context of the mute protagonist. The sound is richly mixed in such a way that we hear not only the sounds of the piano, but the faint wooden thudding of the keys as well.
We learn through Ada’s daughter that though her mother is mute, she believes that what most people say in any case is rubbish. In a parallel sense, the sound direction in the film is masterful, deployed with purpose and sophistication; there is no sound that is extraneous and silences are used to great effect.
With movie-making being a field that is dominated by men who, explicitly or implicitly, favour the perspective of male protagonists and male ways of seeing the world (if you can say that), The Piano offers a refreshing and different perspective. While I wouldn’t argue that it is a feminist film, it is one that prioritises female experience and subjectivity, and this perspective is woven into the very fabric of the piece.
Campion’s more recent work Top of the Lake retains the same craft and beauty as The Piano but with arguably a more sophisticated management of the dramatic arc, development of tension, and more humanly accessible characters. To be fair, a mini-series is a different medium from film altogether. However, for those who enjoyed Top of the Lake and want to look towards the thematic and artistic roots of it, the Blu Ray version of The Piano is an excellent place to start.
The Piano won three Oscars and the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It is released on Blu Ray on 20th January, 2014.
- Interview with Jane Campion and producer Jan Chapman
- Making of documentary
- Audio Commentary
Blu Ray tech specs:
Cert: 15 / Total Running Time: 120 mins approx / Region B / HD standard 1080p / Feature Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 / Colour / 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio / English Language / HOH Subtitles / Catalogue No OPTBD0573 / RRP: £22.99