Starring: Holly Hunter, Sam Neill, Harvey Keitel
Director: Jane Campion
Over twenty years on, The Piano (1993) stands as a turning point in the history of costume drama, breathing new life into a stuffy genre by demonstrating how sumptuous spectacle could be offset with quirky vignettes, elliptical storytelling and unbuttoned, informal performances. Even its perception that the past is a place that had a serious problem with mud is something that has been wholeheartedly embraced ever since – just think of the BBC’s swampy recent adaptation of Jamaica Inn.
In addition, the film gave Holly Hunter the role of her career as Ada, the rebellious mute woman married off against her will to a New Zealand landowner (Sam Neill) as a kind of 19th century mail order bride, and stranded in a squalid outpost of the bush along with her Mini-Me of a daughter and her beloved piano, the only outlet for her inner yearnings, until an uncouth neighbour (played with unselfish gentleness by Harvey Keitel) teaches her how to make sweet music of a different kind. As a performance, it’s a technical marvel, not least because Hunter actually plays the piano for real on screen, but she also brings an extraordinary grace and frosty radiance to this determined and uncompromising character.
In a fascinating hour long interview, recorded circa 2003, that comes with the Blu-ray, Jane Campion suggests that Ada’s muteness is comment on the powerlessness of women in the face of controlling Victorian masculinity. But you could just as well claim the opposite. Arguably there’s even a touch of The Taming of the Shrew about it: the huge, unwieldy piano can be seen as the embodiment of an almost manic intransigence and narcissism on Ada’s part, her determination to speak only if she can speak in ultimatums, and it takes falling in love to teach her that dialogue has a value too.
Campion also talks about the film’s long maturation over several years and drafts, her own doubts and insecurities as a director, how helpful Keitel was in leading rehearsals, how they scoured New Zealand far and wide for locations with the appropriate mood, and just why it was important to have so much mud. The various themes running through the movie are unpicked, and we get glimpses of original storyboards and scripts. On top of that, there’s a 15-minute “making of” dating from the time of the movie’s release, with behind-the-scenes footage and an interview clip of a fresh-faced Holly Hunter talking about how she came up with Ada’s unique form of sign language.
The HD transfer is a little soft but the the delicate quality of the light in many of the exteriors (especially all those salmon pink sunsets against which the piano is framed) come across beautifully, and the lovely score by Michael Nyman strikes cleanly through the speakers.