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‘The Piano’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 19, 1993

"The Piano" plays itself with such contrapuntal richness, it resonates in you forever. Set in 19th-century New Zealand, this saga of will, destiny and passion starring Holly Hunter is an extraordinary symphony of sounds and silence, of lilting pleasure and tangled horror.

There's something mystically compelling about writer/director Jane Campion's 1993 Cannes winner. On one level, it's a fairy tale for adults. But on others, it evokes powerful eroticism, sexual mustiness, emotional anguish and numerous other themes.

Ada (Hunter), a severe-expressioned, handsome woman, has just arrived in New Zealand with 9-year-old, illegitimate daughter Flora (Anna Paquin), luggage and her precious piano in tow. By arrangement, she is to marry Stewart (Sam Neill), a genial, tight-lipped landowner. We know almost immediately that Ada is voluntarily mute. She has chosen not to speak -- as Ada tells us in her "mind's voice" narration -- since the age of 6. She communicates by writing notes (on paper taken from a wallet-sized locket around her neck) or, with her daughter, by signing. The piano -- which Stewart and his Maori helpers balk at moving -- is her voice and identity.

When Stewart refuses to accept the piano, he sets off a protracted war of wills, jealousy and passion. Illiterate Scottish neighbor Baines (Harvey Keitel), touched when he hears Ada play the instrument on the beach, offers land for the piano -- with lessons from Ada. To Ada's horror, Stewart agrees.

Baines's designs, it turns out, are less than musically appreciative. He merely orders her to perform, while he does "certain things" in the ominous background. He bargains further: With each of these bizarre sessions representing one black key, she can earn back the piano. Before the ultimate repossession, however, the emotional climate between them changes.

Hunter, who won the actress prize at Cannes, expresses love, bitterness, hatred and (in a climactic, horrifying scene) excruciating pain with mute eloquence. Keitel brings in the physical (not to mention naked) menace that gave "The Bad Lieutenant" such edginess. But as his dramatic significance changes, his performance is adroitly modulated. As the daughter -- and a significant player in the story -- Paquin is unforgettably precocious.

You experience this mix of mythic and corporeal on the pinions of cinematic fancy. Stuart Dryburgh's camera -- a deeply integral part of this experience -- plunges leagues below the ocean surface, then hovers inches above a teacup. It crouches at mattress height as lovers press sweating bodies together, then soars into the sky to look down at a solitary piano on the beach -- the unwieldy upright that sits so poignantly at the center of this drama.

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