Jane Campion’s Academy Award-winning spectacle The Piano turns 25 years old this year. For so many of those years I knew nothing about it, but the first time I saw it, on the big screen no less, I fell deeply in love with it.
The evocative drama revolves around Ada, a mute Scottish woman who communicates only through a piano. Sold into marriage with a nobleman in New Zealand, Ada has to move across the world with her daughter and struggles to cope in this strange land.
Holly Hunter gives one of the best performances of the past 25 years. I’d even go as far to say that it’s one of the best of all time. Having to convey emotions without words is difficult for any actor, but Hunter tackles the role with a roaring heart and thunderous stares that bellow courage, sexuality, vulnerability and hot-headedness.
Beside her is the plucky Anna Paquin, one of the youngest Academy Award winners. (Paquin and Hunter both won Oscars for their performances in this film.) Paquin plays Ada’s young daughter, and makes her character both annoying and charming in a believable way. She’s angry at the upheaval of her life, and she’s trying to fit in. The way her mother falls apart makes her feel embittered. Sam Neill and Harvey Keitel play the two men Ada is torn between, and are as brilliant as ever.
The lush green palette of New Zealand at the turn of the twentieth century, with streaks of jaded fern and smudges of brown, adds a dream-like aesthetic to the movie. The rain, the shacks and the dirt accentuate Ada’s isolation and imprisonment in loveless marriage in a strange land.
Michael Nyman’s score is a whirlwind of spirit and adventure, as well as adding passionate swells of romance and desire. Holly Hunter, an accomplished pianist, plays all her character’s parts on the piano. The songs are the heart of the movie – they give Ada a voice, and to have Hunter play allows her to further embody the character in an astonishing way.
Campion pulls all these threads together in an alluring way. She defies black and white portrayals of female sexuality and places the onus on her lead character. Though Ada is trapped in a loveless marriage by Neill’s impertinent Stewart, there are still parts of her life that she can control. She protests and is headstrong but also shows kindness and love to those around her. Campion’s Ada is an accomplished and intricate character.
The Piano is a cinematic spell that falls upon you while watching, and lingers long after that. You must see it on the big screen – it’ll bewitch you completely!
Catch The Piano on 30 August as part of our Women’s Work Season.Find your cinema and book tickets