Women in Film Feature #8 – The Piano (1993)

The-piano-posterThe Piano (1993)
Directed by: Jane Campion
Written by: Jane Campion
Starring: Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel, Sam Niell, Anna Paquin

New Zealand born film director Jane Campion is one of only four women to ever be nominated for Best Director by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  With her incredibly successful film The Piano, she became the second woman ever nominated for the prize, nearly two decades after Lina Wertmuller’s nomination for her film Seven Beauties.  Campion also became the first female winner of the Cannes Film Festival’s prestigious Palme d’Or – a record that stood for two decades.  Her films have been praised for their quiet beauty, their adherence to realism, and for their use of gender-central themes and ideas.  While her career has not again reached the highs of The Piano, Campion’s latest work on the television show Top of the Lake has highly acclaimed, with a second season currently in the works.  Jane Campion’s achievements in the early 1990’s cannot be understated, as her success helped propel female directors like Sophia Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow to elite status in Hollywood, tremendous critical acclaim, and to their eventual Academy Award nominations.

Before her incredible success with 1993’s The Piano, Jane Campion saw critical acclaim with two independent features, 1989’s Sweetie, and 1990’s An Angel at My Table.  The Piano saw Campion working with a higher budget than ever before, with the film costing $7 million.  The film was an enormous financial success upon its release and critical acclaim, bringing in an incredible $140 million at the box office and later with rentals.  The Piano stars Holly Hunter as its lead character Ada McGrath, Anna Paquin as her daughter Flora, and Sam Neill and Harvey Keitel as the men competing for Ada’s love and affection.  For the role of Ada, director Jane Campion wanted Sigourney Weaver, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Isabelle Huppert.  Due to various scheduling conflicts with Weaver and Leigh, eventual star Holly Hunter was looked at and ended up fighting harder for the role than Huppert did.  The fighting paid off for Holly Hunter, as her incredible silent performance was rewarded with an Academy Award for Best Actress at the 1994 Oscars ceremony, earning her a great deal of acclaim and solidifying her as one of Hollywood’s greatest actresses of the period.  On top of Hunter’s Best Actress win, The Piano earned another acting award, this time a Best Supporting Actress award for Anna Paquin.  At just 11 years old, the win made Paquin the second youngest Oscar winner ever.  The film was nominated for 8 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, and Best Costume Design.  Campion herself picked up an award for Best Original Screenplay, but the film was beaten out in other major categories by Steven Spielberg’s seminal film Schindler’s List.  Jane Campion’s The Piano remains one of the most critically hailed films of the 1990’s, and stands as a modern triumph of what women can do with the medium when given equal opportunity to do so.

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Ada McGrath, her daughter Flora, and the titular piano in Jane Campion’s 1993 film.

The Piano opens by explaining that a young, mute Scottish woman named Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter) has been sold by her father for marriage to a man in New Zealand by the name of Alisdair Stewart (Sam Niell).  Ada has not spoken a word since the age of six, and nobody knows exactly why.  Ada brings her daughter Flora (Anna Paquin) with her to New Zealand, along with her prized hand-crafted piano.  The young woman is seemingly only to express herself through the playing of this piano, and she spends much of her time learning and playing.  Once in New Zealand, the mother and daughter duo are taken in by Alisdair, who instructs his crew of Maori men to leave the piano on the beach, as it is far too heavy to carry all the way back to their new home.  Alisdair turns out to be not quite the gentle and charming husband Ada would have preferred, instead quickly becoming quite jealous and controlling over his new wife and daughter.  Ada gradually grows closer to Alisdair’s friend Baines (Harvey Keitel), who in turn purchases the piano and brings it up from the beach so that Ada can play when they are together.  Baines soon falls in love with the mute woman, setting off a chain of events between himself, Ada, and Alisdair and ensuring that none of them will ever be the same again.  Will true love prevail, or will the bitter jealousy of one man ruin things for all parties?  Find out in Jane Campion’s acclaimed The Piano.

Jane Campion’s The Piano was my first experience with her works, and I came out of the experience pleasantly surprised.  I have always wanted to see both Sweetie and An Angel at My Table because of their status as independent hits, and now I have more motivation than ever before to do so.  The Piano is such an incredibly memorable experience in many ways, including some truly incredible performances, terrific direction from Campion, and breathtaking photography by cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh.  The film manages to tell a truly powerful story without ever having its lead character speak, and without sinking into melodramatic territory, which happens too often in stories of love triangles and forbidden romance.  Jane Campion deserves a great deal of credit for her subtle but effective screenplay, which treats every character as a flawed human being, never romanticizing or villainizing any one character no matter how easy it may be to do so.  Campion’s writing never goes for the “easy” win, and instead she opts to take a much more treacherous path in making the audience feel for the character in The Piano.  Campion’s writing and direction can also be credited in aiding the entire cast in delivering highly memorable performances, even earning two Oscars in the process.  Holly Hunter’s silent and moody performance as Ada is one I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forget, as she conveys so much without ever saying a word.  Hunter’s dark eyes do all of the speaking for her, telling the audience more in one glance than many actresses could in an entire monologue. Holly Hunter’s Ada is both passionate and reserved, and the audience can always feel the emotional tug-of-war that is trying to drag her into the mud.  The supporting cast of Anna Paquin, Sam Neill, and Harvey Keitel all give tremendous performances in their own right, but are all eclipsed by Hunter’s hauntingly beautiful portrayal of Ada McGrath.  While The Piano can seem slow and dreary at times, there don’t seem to be many wasted moments in the film’s run-time.  Every scene feels like it has a place in either setting the atmosphere of our New Zealand location, establishing the motivations and drives of our cast of characters, or moving the central story forward.  What starts as a relatively mundane costume drama eventually turns into a fiery, brooding story of one woman’s awakening.  Had Campion kept the script’s tragic original ending, the film would have received an even more positive reaction from me.  It’s a shame that it was released the same year as Schindler’s List, because Jane Campion’s The Piano would otherwise fall very neatly into the canon of terrific and important Best Picture winners.

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Flora (Anna Paquin) and Ada (Holly Hunter), the mother-daughter duo in Jane Campion’s The Piano.

While its slow-moving nature may turn off some potential viewers, there’s absolutely no denying the power and importance of Jane Campion’s 1993 romantic drama.  The Piano features too many incredible elements to be forgotten by critics or audiences, including a career-best performance by Holly Hunter, a solid cast of young and veteran supporting performers, tremendous writing and direction from Jane Campion, and rich, dark cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh.  While the idea of a forbidden love triangle may not immediately set your world on fire, the film’s tragic and triumphant story of an independent young woman finding strength and motivation to escape from a toxic situation should be more than enough to arouse your interest.  Jane Campion’s The Piano is easily one of the best films of the 1990’s, and a landmark moment for women in film.  It’s highly recommended.

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