Jane Campion is an
unashamedly feminist director. This is, after all, the woman who
made In the Cut, a mostly
failed serial-killer lark known primarily for an unglamorously
disrobed Meg Ryan. Ten years earlier she made the universally
praised period film The Piano,
a raw and confronting study of people on the edge of civilization in
the mid 19th century without the skills to communicate effectively
with each other.
For the thirty-something protagonist, Ada (Holly Hunter), it is not
by choice or lack of awareness: she has been mute since the age of
six. She instead communicates through sign language and vicariously
through her plucky daughter (Anna Paquin), who acts as interpreter.
Her real vehicle of expression, though, is her piano. She brings it
with her to New Zealand when her father sells her into marriage with
frontiersman, Alistair Stewart (Sam Neill).
In the untamed and almost mythical forest, Ada finds herself stuck
oddly between Alistair and Baines (Harvey Keitel), a white man who
has tattooed his face in the style of his Maori neighbours. Baines
obtains Ada’s piano, up until now still stranded on the beach, in
exchange for land from Alistair. He offers the furious Ada a deal:
she can buy her piano back, one key at a time, if she will only
“teach him piano”.
The piano lessons are however only a cover for the growing sexual
attraction between them, a desire that feels as new and seductive as
an adolescent discovering their body for the first time. Campion
states in the short documentary on the disc that she was interested
in the “innocence about sex, erotica and love”, a concept foreign to
our modern culture of over-exposure. One of the most striking things
about the film is this raw eroticism which is explicit, but not
All the performances are fine, especially Hunter and Paquin, both of
whom won oscars from their work. It's remarkable that our sympathies
always lie with Hunter even when she does not utter single word on
screen. And it's hard to believe Paquin, only 11 at the time, would
turn into the woman who is the star of HBO's
True Blood, where little of
her is left to the imagination. Here she gives a performance only a
child star could give: honest and uncluttered by ego and
The score by Michael Nyman has since gone on to be a popular hit,
the two centrepieces "The Heart Asks Pleasure First" and "My Big
Secret", the most well known. By acting as Ada's metaphorical
"voice", the score is massively important. Except for an odd misstep
involving belching saxophones, the piano-led score captures the
right mix of melancholy and romance, its mix of traditional folk
tunes and contemporary styling emotive but unmanipulative. The same
could be said of Jane Campion's direction, which is tremendously
effective but mostly invisible.
The Blu-ray itself is superb. The video is presented in full 1080i
and enhanced 16x9, while the audio is DTS-HD 5.1. The special
features are few, but engaging, and include a short fifteen minute
archive documentary with interviews with the principals, and a
commentary by Jane Campion and producer, Jan Chapman.
Moving, beautifully photographed and performed, all film fans owe it
to themselves to have this disc in their library.