Yes I know this film is nearly 25 years old – can you believe that? – but I am implementing an ad hoc program to introduce my girls to significant films from the past. Ron’s doing the same, Terminator 2 has become Tallulah’s favourite action film.
I haven’t seen The Piano for about 20 years and I remember having mixed feelings about it. I was a serious photography student at the time and the visual aesthetic and music had a big impact on me and on many other visual artists at the time. I remember being a bit uncomfortable about the gender roles but not enough to think negatively about the film.
The story is a simple one. In the 1850s, a Scottish woman and her daughter (Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin in her first role) are sent off to New Zealand as the woman, Ada, has been married off by her father to a stranger. Ada has not spoken since she was a child, an elective mute, and she communicates with her daughter through gestures and notes and, most profoundly, through music as she play the piano that accompanies her on her journey. As she settles in to her isolated and alien life in remote New Zealand, the piano becomes a bargaining tool and punishment, controlled by the two men who vie for her attention – her husband and one of his workers, George Baines, played a bit awkwardly by Harvey Keitel.
So 22 years on and I am surprised at how well The Piano holds up. Maybe it’s too soon to recognise its contemporary aesthetic – I know that period dramas of the 70s and 80s now look so much of those times – and maybe it will be the same for The Piano in a decade or so. The colour palette is carried beautifully through the film – the deliberate blue cast of the outdoor scenes that make the landscape look bleak and foreboding, accentuating the isolation of the main characters, the chocolate browns and greys of the costumes. The Michael Nyman piano music, mostly played by Holly Hunter, is also a stand out, although it sounds a little too contemporary to my ears now, perhaps because it is so familiar.
I can see aspects that would be different now. The largely unnamed Maori characters are peripheral, there for humour and to contrast the prim repression of the husband, played by Sam Neill, with the more native and savage sexual earthiness of Baines. They speak in untranslated Maori, serving a purpose to highlight their strangeness to Ada and all those clinging to British ways, but also ensuring they have no voice in the film or part to play in the narrative. I can’t imagine this would happen today in a film with such social sensitivity.
I could see the context of the gender roles this time around but they still made me uneasy. Ada is a possession of men, as all women would have been then, and has suffered from their perfidy, callousness and weakness. Abandoned by the father of her child, given by her father to a stranger and then abused by both men in her new home. She has a strong will though and this is the arc of the story, her resilience when all seems hopeless, her tenacity to be heard. It is the coercive love story that makes me uneasy. I can see how it is justified – Jane Campion talks about love being simply attention and I can see how to have one man take notice of her, actually listen to her, is a transformative act – but I kept thinking, “no means no, dude, even if she can’t say it.” It is tantalisingly portrayed though, the hole in the stocking, the music, the voyeur’s obscured view.