Campion's romantic drama is a beautiful film that is visually-stunning and heartfelt, but yet manages to resist the pitfalls of sentimentality and cliché.
Ada McGarth (Hunter) arrives on the shore of Victorian New Zealand with her daughter Flora (Paquin), having been sold into marriage to Alistair Stewart (Neill), a frontiersman. Ada has been mute since the age of six for reasons unknown and with the exception of a few lines of dialogue book ending the film, the titular piano serves as one of her few means of expression. Due to its weight, the piano is left on the beach until it is collected by Mr Baines (Keitel), Stewart's friend. Recognising not only Ada's beauty but the piano's worth to her, Baines offers to trade it back to Ada in exchange for her company. Quickly, Ada and Flora are caught up in a battle for her affections being waged between her husband and his friend.
As a work depicting the trials of a woman reduced to a possession to be fought over by men, The Piano is a carefully considered piece. It does not attempt to portray Stewart nor Baines as the typical romantic hero, it instead maintains a brutally honest narrative where one is only marginally kinder than the other yet both use violence and coercion. Neither are outwardly wicked, but it is difficult to believe that either truly love Ada as an equal. However, considering the plight of women in that era, this is to be expected. The Piano does not portray romance as a modern audience might understand it but it is hard to not be captivated by the development of the relationships between the characters – for better or for worse.
The commitment of the cast to the story is awe-inspiring. Devoid of speech, Hunter conveys Ada's pain via vivid facial expressions and an grace of movement ballet dancers would be envious of. The power of Paquin's at times deeply humorous performance resulted in a well-deserved Academy Award and both Neill and Keitel command the screen from start to finish.
If The Piano falls short anywhere than it's at the exploration of Ada as a woman and what drives her character. Without a voice, the audience is often kept at arm's length in terms of what must be going through her mind during the events of the film. However, this does challenge the audience to ponder what life must have been like for women during this time and indeed even today. Is her heart won by a man who earned her love or simply the person who treated her less wretchedly than the other? Was six the age that women in that era lost their voices?
At its core, The Piano is a film about passion, both artistic and of the heart. Themes of intimacy and human expression are also key but the presentation of romance as part of that intimacy feels corrupted or twisted. In the film, love is not earned but won and a human heart is not cherished but kept as a spoil of war. Doubtless, there is great beauty in The Piano but it is beauty with darkness just beneath the surface and one must wonder that if Ada had a voice, how loudly she would scream?
EXTRAS ★★ An audio commentary featuring Campion and producer Jan Chapman; a brief yet fascinating making-of featurette; and a trailer.