Any discussion of Jane Campion’s filmmaking achievements hinges on The Piano, as rightly it should. The erotic romance won Campion the Palme D’Or (she’s still the only female recipient) and an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Not only was the film critically acclaimed, it represented a crystallization of her overarching themes, coupled with a decidedly feminist message. It is a natural touchstone for female-made and female centric films. Aside from being historically significant, though, The Piano is a masterfully crafted gothic tale of suppression and achieved expression.

Like Kay in Sweetie, living her life by prophecy and struggling to be heard over her sister, or Janet Frame in An Angel at My Table, being sent to an asylum before being able to write her novels, Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter) is a woman few understand. Mute since the age of six for reasons no one, not even she, knows, Ada expresses herself through sign language – as translated by her daughter, Flora (Anna Paquin) – handwritten notes and the sound of her piano. Although mute, Ada declares, “The strange thing is, I don’t think myself silent. That is because of my piano.” She is an enigma to everyone around her; thanks to Campion’s use of sporadic voice-over narration, viewers have the most direct insight into Ada’s thoughts. Even in voice-over, though, she sounds like a meek child, with a tiny voice speaking in short, simple sentences. If she appears childish, however, the sheer force of her will – violently scribbled onto note paper – tells otherwise.

Married off by her father, Ada and Flora arrive on a beach in New Zealand to meet Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill). Directly symbolizing her oppression in this objectifying arrangement, Stewart leaves Ada’s piano on the beach, taking away the closest thing she has to a voice, her very expression. Needless to say, Ada doesn’t warm to her new husband but keeps her distance, avoiding interaction and, above all, intimacy. When the gruff whaler George Baines (Harvey Keitel) obtains her piano and arranges a deal – through Stewart – whereby Ada can play it only if she gives him lessons, Ada’s silent stoicism begins to unravel. Although Baines initially strikes a deal with Ada for music in exchange for eroticism – with Baines returning the piano key by key, as Ada lifts her skirt, undoes a button or removes her blouse – that bargain ultimately unleashes a passionate romance.

Unlike Sweetie, which is charged with the underlying intensity of nervous anxiety, The Piano is outwardly a resolute, even subdued period piece. While Campion infused her previous films with tension via off-kilter camera angles and framing, there is less of that here. Ada and Flora, dressed head to toe in black, are starkly set against the New Zealand beach; wide shots compounding their lack of control over the situation. When Stewart’s suspicions overcome him and he spies on Ada and Baines’ piano lesson, Campion’s camera is stealthy, peering through gaps in the wooden cabin and upwards from underneath the floorboards. Placing the camera in Stewart’s perspective here garners the character surprising sympathy, until his rage overwhelms him. This sense of dread and captivity permeates the film through shots of Ada locked in Stewart’s boarded up the house looking through grimy windows.

The Piano’s third act prompts an unexpected shift in our interpretation of the instrument. Where it had once been a necessary mode of expression and a source of solace, it becomes a point of dispute with both Stewart and Baines – the implication perhaps that Baines’ ownership of the piano engendered Ada’s affection – and ultimately becomes a burden, a vestige of an unfulfilled life that Ada is willing to part with. Campion crafts a perfect rebirth for her protagonist when she nearly drowns with her beloved instrument.

“I clipped your wing, that’s all,” is Stewart’s oblivious summation of his mutilation of Ada. But if she is made flightless, if you will, in an attempt to keep her, the trauma inspires her to free herself and explore a fuller expression of her desires. Ada may still play the piano, but she resolves to learn to speak, so that she may never be silenced again. Undeniably Campion’s most powerful film of her career upon its release, The Piano deserves its praise and then some.

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