The Piano, wr/dir. Jane Campion, st. Holly Hunter, Sam Neill, Harvey Keitel, Anna Paquin
If you've never seen The Piano, Jane Campion's multi-award-winning, wind-swept love story from 1993, Studiocanal might just have put an end to your excuses with a new, lovingly assembled disc that features an impossibly beautiful high-definition print, and Michael Nyman's soul-caressing score restored within a 5.1 DTS lossless Master Audio track.
Commonly cited as the definitive art house/mainstream crossover movie, Campion's film that claimed the Palme d'Or at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival, and a triumvirate of top-band Oscars the following year, is a dreamy foray into foreign lands, symphonious sounds of rain, crackling woodland and the sweet notes of hammered strings, and the violently sonorous meeting of Victorian restraint with unbridled desire. Holly Hunter plays Ada McGrath, a young woman who's sold into marriage, and packaged off to a remote corner of the world to live with her new husband - frontiersman Alisdair Stewart (Neill). Deposited on the New Zealand beach, Ada is surrounded by the domestic trinkets and fripperies that have accompanied her, but two possessions she prizes above all else; her nine-year-old daughter Flora (Paquin), and her piano. Both serve as Ada's mouthpiece, for as we are told in an opening monologue, Ada has not spoken since she was six. We are also introduced to Baines (Keitel), another Westerner on the island, an ex-sailor who has immersed himself in Māori culture and custom, and who in Stewart's stoic formality and lack of empathy, spies an opportunity to win Ada's heart by rescuing her beloved instrument abandoned on the sands by her new husband, and sell it back to her key by key in return for daily visitations - ostensibly music lessons - of carnal embrace.
Together, Ada and Flora make a formidable team, the former emphatically signing to her brood when frustrated, and her offspring translating with furious attitude to those around her bewildered by her elemental temperament. So woven is Hunter's performance into the very fabric of this film, impressive details that tell of her role as Paquin's on-set sign-language teacher, or inform of her actual on-screen piano-playing dissolve into the air. She inhabits her character with such intensity and persuasion through one page of dialogue and ninety nine of impassioned and delicate physicality. Rarely has Sam Neill been better too, an actor who has always achieved more by doing less. His Stewart isn't the villain the film's Blubeard allegory would have you believe, and indeed, forces us to ruminate upon those around us who are unable to take pleasure in or comprehend the delight of food, music, art, companionship, beauty - whatever it may be. That we would presume those kinds of people are somehow deficient in some way is troubling. Although Campion interestingly juxtaposes Stewart's dour pragmatism with the possibility of literal impotence in the same way she frames Baines' communicative patience with his mastery of eroticism.
All the while, surging and churning around the action, is Michael Nyman's now-ubiquitous score, a heady mixture of 19th Century Salon music Romanticism, and the minimalism of Nyman's 20th Century signature style, music that provides the backdrop for everything from the vast New Zealand vistas lovingly captured by cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, to Ada's most intimate and fragile utterances. And in Ada, Campion has created one of the great cinematic heroines; a woman who loves and lives with awesome ferocity, who conjures and creates with almost supernatural grace and artistry, and who forges a path for herself and her child in the face of impossible human and elemental adversity. All the more impressive considering she never says a word.