I’ve been meaning to watch The Piano for almost thirty years. It came out in 1993, when I was fifteen, a shade too young to see it — by my parent’s estimation, at least. It was deemed too sexually explicit, which only made me more curious about it, especially since it didn’t look like a particularly sexy movie, with its poster featuring a lady in a bonnet and a piano on a beach. I became even more intrigued when Anna Paquin won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. I wondered how a little girl could give a big enough performance to win an Oscar. But I guess my curiosity wasn’t that strong, because I never tried to sneak to it in a second-run theater. I don’t remember it as something that teenagers were especially interested in, at the time. It was regarded as art-house movie for grown-ups, maybe a bit snoozy. Horrifyingly, I am now about the same age as my parents when they first saw it.
The Piano is currently streaming on Netflix, in advance of Jane Campion’s new movie, The Power of the Dog, which premieres in theaters November 17 and on Netflix December 1. Watching it at home was not ideal. It’s a big-screen kind of movie, from the iconic image of a piano, stranded on the beach, to more haunted views of razed forests and rain-soaked cabins. Although the movie is grounded in historical details, it hit me like a fairy tale, with its straight-forward plotting and subterranean emotion. It is also like a fairy tale in the way it gives its child character, Flora (Anna Paquin), real agency. Her actions affect the plot, and her motivations aren’t always sweet and innocent. Paquin is startlingly natural in the role; ten minutes in, I could see why she won Best Supporting Actress. She shows us a little girl whose complicated task is to speak for her mute mother, and to be alert to her mother’s wishes. It’s a responsibility that brings her very close to her mother, maybe too close at times, and it causes confusion and chaos when her mother has desires that she wants to keep secret from her.
Hunter plays Ada, Flora’s mother, a mute woman who is sold into marriage to an English colonizer, Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill), who is trying settle New Zealand. Flora is Ada’s illegitimate daughter, and her close companion. Mother and daughter communicate via sign language and music; Ada is an accomplished piano player while Flora sings and dances. When Ada arrives on shore via boat, she brings her piano with her, a piece of luggage that Stewart was not expecting. Stewart tells her it’s too heavy to carry, and that they must leave it on the beach. He doesn’t understand that the piano is Ada’s voice, her way of expressing herself. Without it, she’s lost. She can’t concentrate, can’t rest, can’t find happiness. It’s as if a piece of her body has been left on the beach. Although Stewart is oblivious to her psychic pain, another man sees it: Stewart’s right-hand man, George Baines (Harvey Keitel). Baines takes Ada to visit her piano on the beach and when she plays it, he falls in love with her. In a bid to win her over, he buys the piano from Stewart and pays for piano lessons from her. This sets the characters up on a collision course of sex, love, deception, retribution, and a near-suicide. You can see what’s coming, but it still unfolds in unexpected ways.
Although Ada and Flora have landed in an isolated place, far from their home, this isn’t a story that takes place in a vacuum. Campion show the complexity of the community they have entered, and how the English settlers live uneasily with the Maori tribes. From the first scene, we see that Stewart can’t find his way through the woods without a Maori guide, and is vaguely afraid of the land he has purchased for farming. Throughout The Piano we get glimpses of the Maori community, as well as the Victorian colonist settlement, with its schools, churches, and half-built tracts of lands. Flora moves easily between worlds, playing with Maori children and attending English-style school, while Ada gets stuck with matrons who are skeptical of her piano-playing. You can see why she’s drawn to Baines, who lives in the woods and socializes with Maori families. The natural world is also a part of the story: the forest and the sea are forces to be reckoned with, not pretty backdrops.
Watching The Piano, I was most struck by its influence over the past 25 years. The opening scene, when Ada arrives with her piano, reminded me of the opening of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and I also found myself thinking of Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, which has a much more brutal look at colonial life. Those were the two that came to mind immediately, but there must be many other examples. I also wondered if New Zealand became a more popular shooting location after The Piano. It has become, over the years, the go-to location for fantasy movies that need a setting that is other-worldly and pristine. How much of that, I wonder, started with the long shot of Holly Hunter playing the piano on an enormous, isolated beach, the waves crashing behind her, the sky impassive and empty.