“The voice you hear is not my speaking voice, but my mind’s voice”, so begins Jane Campion’s The Piano, the voice in question belonging to Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter), a 19th-century Irish woman who stopped speaking as a child and has never felt the need to utter another word. Ada reveals that she has found a different kind of voice, through her beloved piano which has become an extension of her body.
Almost instantly we understand that for all its poetic content, Ada’s silence was perhaps a generalized condition for women during the era. Women were still regarded as inferior beings whose only purpose was to procreate and raise children. This was the time during which the Brontë sisters had to write under male pseudonyms and the idea of women voting was thought to be unholy.
Ada has so little power over her own life that her father marries her to Stewart (Sam Neill), a man she’s never met, and ships her and her daughter Flora (Anna Paquin) to New Zealand to reunite with him. We sense that Ada and Flora are not average women in how they seem so unconventional and outspoken (no pun intended). Little Flora declares “I’m not going to call him Papa, I’m not going to call him anything”, about Stewart, giving herself the liberty to forge her own fate on the new land. Little do they know that Stewart isn’t the kind of overpowering figure they were expecting, his biggest surprise being his new wife’s height.
They move to his village, but due to logistics they are unable to carry Ada’s piano and Stewart sells it to George Baines (Hervey Keitel), his liaison and translator with the local Maori people. Stewart also requests his wife gives the stranger lessons, unaware that they will forge a relationship that will change all of them.
The Piano works beautifully as a forbidden romance because Campion is the rare kind of filmmaker who can convey the truly erotic amidst the restraint associated to period pieces. Her dedication to portraying the beauty of the human body is remarkable, especially because she doesn’t obsess over socially acceptable parameters of beauty. There are scenes in The Piano that seem to come straight out of Goya’s fantasies, scenes in which Stuart Dryburgh’s cinematography creates dreamlike sequences out of light and unique camera moves.
Yet for all of its unbridled romance — it’s impossible to watch this movie and not to turn into a sighing mess halfway through it — the real core of The Piano is its powerful feminist message. Campion is one of the most lauded feminist film directors and with reason, all of her movies deal with social injustices against women, but not through a series of clichés and forced “social consciousness”, instead Campion subverts these topics and studies them through romance and sexuality.
Therefore the love story at the center of The Piano isn’t precisely that of Ada and George, but of Ada and her piano. Ada’s muteness is more than a plot device, it’s a political statement. “Mother says that most people speak rubbish and it’s not worth it to listen” says little Flora, shocking the other women around her but reminding us that everyone has a voice, but in this case it’s the choice to conceal it that becomes the more powerful message.
Throughout, Campion reminds us of the way in which the male-centric world makes an extra effort to silence women. After Ada loses her piano, she must compromise with her own values and trade it by providing Georger with sexual favors. The dichotomy created here between the woman as a whore and the woman as an intelligent being who figures out her sexuality might be her strongest asset, is fascinating and time appropriate considering it’s a dynamic we still observe in the entertainment industry.
Campion challenges our notions of feminism by reminding us that before the era of the sexual revolution and civil rights, minorities needed to express themselves through whatever means they had available. This is why all her characters are so thrilling and timeless. Her Ada inhabits the same universe as Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), the outspoken, fashion forward muse to John Keats that Campion created so beautifully in Bright Star, and even the ruthless Madame Serena Merle (Barbara Hershey) of The Portrait of a Lady, both who offered quite different but effective manners of approaching feminism.
One of the key moments in The Piano goes practically undetected, when during a seemingly harmless scene Flora addresses Stewart as “Papa”, going against what she declared at the film’s start. This innocuous shift shows us how the little girl has begun learning about adapting her values to her needs in order to survive. That she knows how to manipulate the situation to her favor by the mere use of words is as empowering a feminist message as any you could’ve had in the 19th century.
The Piano might just be the greatest movie of the ’90s and as such, this Blu-ray edition can’t help but feel like a complete disappointment. The high definition transfer is remarkable but really how could they go wrong when it’s a movie as beautiful as this? The cinematography acquires an even more dreamlike quality in high definition, with some of the movie’s most iconic moments gaining new life. The Piano was always meant to have some grain (the underwater scenes for example) and even if they become more obvious when juxtaposed with the clarity of some key moments, they still look superb and won’t upset anyone who is aware of the artistry behind them.
As for packaging and extras, Lionsgate has done a rather poor job, with the greatest omission being their lack of subtitles for some scenes in which Ada uses sign language with Flora. These were subtitled in the movie and helped the characters’ back stories by revealing aspects of their inner lives that were ignored by other characters. The story still flows well without them but they were some of the most intimate moments in the film and now will go unperceived by first time viewers. The complete lack of extras is also baffling, considering the movie is about to celebrate its 20th anniversary.
The only bonus feature is a trailer. The artwork was also quite strange considering that they don’t bother to mention the film won the Palme d’Or at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival and instead advertise it as the debut of True Blood’s Anna Paquin, which isn’t a lie, but seems to reduce the movie to an obscure catalog feature unearthed only because it stars one of TV’s most popular actresses. Lionsgate can certainly make improvements on this release although the film’s brilliance pretty much overcomes any mishaps.