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In the 1850s, a mute woman and her young daughter travel from Scotland to New Zealand when she is married to a husband as-yet-unseen. Ada’s prized possession is her piano, transported with her to her new home, but her husband Alisdair immediately incurs her distrust by refusing to take it from the beach to his home in the interior. Intrigued by Ada, George Baines, a settler who has adopted some Maori ways, buys the piano and insists Ada give him lessons. Ada can win her piano back from him in return for favors. Once the lessons begin, however, Ada and Baines discover mutual understanding that becomes dangerous when discovered by Ada’s frustrated husband.
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The Piano is the winner of 3 OSCARS - Best Actress (Hunter), Best Supporting Actress (Paquin), Best Original Screenplay
The Piano was highly acclaimed when it was released, garnering Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay. Holly Hunter won Best Actress and Anna Paquin—making her debut here—won Best Supporting Actress. On whatever level you take the film—as a Victorian social commentary, as symbolic magical realism, or on its surface narrative—you will find a thought-provoking and unusual film.
The opening proves that, despite the title’s insistence on The Piano being an auditory experience, it will truly appeal to all the senses: there’s a splash of George O’Keeffe-like sensual color and the voice-over narrative of Ada (Holly Hunter), a Scottish woman who has been mute since the age of six. It is Ada’s will and “dark talent” rather than a physical symptom that has rendered her mute, but she and her young daughter Flora (Anna Paquin) have been able to communicate despite this circumstance and remain very affectionate. Interestingly for a film whose protagonist never says a word, the inner monologue of Ada’s mind “voice” disappears until the very end. Ada and Flora are living with Ada’s father until he marries her to a New Zealand settler who has corresponded with them by letter—this being the 1850s, it could hardly be done otherwise. Ada and Flora prepare to leave to meet their new husband and father respectively, with Ada’s precious piano as cargo.
Ada communicates via a system of sign language and through writing things down on a pad she keeps around her neck at all times (interestingly both Maori and Ada’s sign language receive subtitles). Despite this, she is shown to be unusually strong-willed when she and Flora land in New Zealand, first sending off the lecherous sailors who took them there and then when she’s confronted with her husband Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill). When no one arrives to take her, Flora, and their luggage from the beach she pitches a tent of a hoop skirt and petticoats where she remains until the next morning when her husband and several hired Maori men arrive, including George Baines (Harvey Keitel), a white settler who has adopted Maori ways. The journey back to Alisdair’s plantation takes a day and is a completely foreign experience to the wide-eyed Ada.
Like many marriages of the kind, both Ada and Alisdair are somewhat disappointed by each other. Ada is livid when Alisdair refuses to transport the piano, and Alisdair finds Ada’s lack of affection and the fact she is small and “stunted” not quite what he was expecting. They find it difficult to adjust to each other, and the fact that their wedding is commemorated with a photograph taken in a fake wedding dress in the rain indicates a façade with a real lack of authenticity in the marriage. Alisdair’s Aunt Morag tries to help Ada and Flora integrate into the conformist community and reassure Alisdair that affection will grow on the part of his wife. Flora, on the other hand, while proving herself to be an able musician and precocious child, is given to tall tales. Her story about her father is a fiction, but in reality he is still a mysterious figure—able to communicate with Ada using intuition—“I could lay thoughts in his mind like they were a sheet”—who nevertheless abandoned her and their child.
Unable to endure the stifling atmosphere of her home, Ada and Flora go to Baines’ cabin and ask him to take them to the piano on the beach. After his initial refusal, he hears Ada’s rhapsodic performance. Evidently his assumptions are challenged and his interest piqued, as he offers to sell Alisdair land in return for the piano. “Baines the music lover?” Alisdair ponders, unwittingly. When Ada finds out, however, she is furious. Alisdair, already beginning to fear that his wife is not only mute but “brain-affected,” derides her obsession with the piano and demands she makes sacrifices so the family can prosper.
Asked to give piano lessons to Baines, Ada is shocked when she finds it already tuned in his cabin (unbeknownst to her, he hired a piano tuner before she arrived). Ada quickly learns Baines has no intention of being able to play the piano—she can win her piano back, “one visit for every key.” When they finally make a deal of a favor for every black key, things spin rapidly out of control. Flora is annoyed when she is no longer able to attend the lessons. Ada endures Baines’ attentions with cold indifference, spurning him at the Christmas play (the Bluebeard pantomime becomes surprisingly important later in the film). Crushed by the inequity, Baines gives Ada her piano—“I want you to care for me.”
Clueless Alisdair is at his wits’ end when Ada remains listless after the recovery of her beloved piano. Despite her daughter’s shrewd admonition, Ada defies convention and the morality of the day and goes to see Baines, having developed feelings for him after his awakening of her sensual nature through the piano and forbidden intimacies. Their love and happiness is short-lived, however, as a pettish Flora reveals the truth to Alisdair. His rage and repression eventually boil over, leaving destruction and physical violence in their wake. When he goes to confront Baines with a shotgun, the after effects of his violence will leave a lasting mark on everyone in the remote New Zealand community.
In a love triangle, one character always seems to be the less worthy of love. Though at first Ada finds Baines uncouth—he can’t read—it’s pretty clear that Alisdair is the barbaric one, showing typical colonial disregard for the Maori, evoking Rochester and the mad woman in the attic in his treatment of Ada, and reacting ineffectually to every situation, ranging from the oblivious to the senselessly violent. He seems to make New Zealand another Heart of Darkness all on his own. Still, his final act of understand redeems him and helps save the story from being a complete tragedy.
On a symbolic level, Ada’s piano could represent many things. It seems to be her freedom, her voice, her will, a representation of her mastery over the senses, and by the end of the film, her crutch which she kicks away having found a relationship a little less one-sided. The Piano is an unusual film in terms of its setting and protagonist, but its story is universal. It is skilfully made and profoundly memorable.