The Piano (1993) Directed by Jane Campion. Holly Hunter, Harvery Keitel, Sam Neill and Anna Paquin.

Director Jane Campion’s model for The Piano was Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte. But, one reviewer thought if nonsense poet Edward Lear dreamed of sex, it would have looked like this. Campion aims at a neglected aspect of the Victorian age, its surrealism. What other age was so excessively polite? Bronte had a passionate hatred of polite society and all forms of restraint. The Piano explores the Gothic, that romantic Victorian sensibility that masks passion with fear, mystery and the exotic.

Campion’s films center on strong-willed women. Her first feature, Sweetie, is the almost unwatchable story of a family ruled by a self-destructive sister. Angel at my Table is a biography of author Janet Frame, wrongly committed to a mental institution. After The Piano, she directed the adaption of Portrait of a Lady, starring Nicole Kidman. The Piano is about control, not sex… pure will, not flirtatiousness; Ada is no passive doll. She identifies her needs and goes about satisfying them. Holly Hunter plays her without vanity: no dialogue, no make-up and greasy hair.Hunter saw the script and had to have it. Campion had envisioned Ada as tall, as an extraordinary beauty, but Hunter had one enormous advantage: she can really play the piano.

Composer Michael Nyman hesitantly met with her to see how well she could play, and then, relieved, was able to go ahead and write whatever music he wanted to write, confident she could realize it. He felt it had to be “possible” mid-19th century music, written by an amateur composer who had lived in Scotland and then New Zealand in the mid 1850s. He used Scottish folk and popular songs as the basis for the music, something that she had in her head and in her fingers. He felt there had to be a kind of modesty to it, although Holly Hunter played Ada playing the piano with enormous dedication and intensity.

Holly Hunter won an Oscar for best actress and young Anna Paquin’s complex portrayal of Flora won for Best Supporting Actress. Jane Campion won for Best Original Screenplay. The film also won the grand prize at Cannes, and Hunter for Best Actress. The photography is by Stuart Dryburgh. His dramatic points of view, and the cool grey sweep of landscape contrasting with the warmth of the interiors contributes to the unforgettable look of the film.

Ada’s music is filled with repressed longing. It is a siren song: her husband is deaf, but a more elemental man answers…Heathcliff, or Caliban?

c. Moviediva2000