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This movie won Oscars for Best Actress (Holly Hunter); Best Supporting Actress (Anna Paquin); and Original Screenplay.

‘The Piano’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 19, 1993

"The Piano," the evocative, powerful, extraordinarily beautiful film from the Australian director Jane Campion, tells the story of a 19th-century Scottish woman who, according to her father's desires, is shipped off to a crude New Zealand settlement to become the wife of a man she's never met.

The woman's name is Ada, and as we learn from her brief narration, she has refused to utter a word since the age of 6, when she simply decided to end her spoken dialogue with the outside world. Ada (brought spectacularly to life by Holly Hunter) informs us of this through her "inner voice," which we hear only twice -- at the very beginning of the film and at the very end. Other than that, she utters not a sound, not even in the most extreme, most violent circumstances.

Yet Ada doesn't think of herself as mute. Softly caressing the keys, she tells us that her piano is her voice. With the exception of her young daughter, Flora (Anna Pacquin), Ada treasures her piano above everything. Nothing else seems to matter much, not her isolation in this remote, half-civilized outpost, or the drenching rains, or the scary unfamiliarity of the native Maori who live at her doorstep. Sitting rigidly before her instrument, Ada seems to enter into a deep, blissful communion with her music as it flows from her fingertips with the virtuosity of a songbird. More than a mere release or a diversion, the piano is her sustenance, her life.

Given these conditions, it's obvious that Ada cannot bear to be separated from her precious instrument. But after she and her daughter arrive at their new home, her new husband, Stewart (Sam Neill), decides that the piano is too heavy to be carried inland and has to be left on the beach. At this point Stewart, befuddled by his grim-faced, silent bride, has no idea what the piano means to her, and he trades it to a menacing colonist named Baines (Harvey Keitel) for a parcel of land.

But Baines doesn't want just the piano. Before hauling the instrument up from the beach to his quarters, he makes one further demand: He wants lessons too. For Ada, the arrangement is by no means perfect. With his forehead and nose decorated with tattoos, Baines is a fearsome-looking man, but because she cannot refuse and still have access to her piano, she agrees. Shortly after their sessions begin, though, Baines offers Ada a separate deal. While she is playing, if she will allow him, in his words, "to do things," she can earn back her piano at a rate of one key per visit. One black key per visit, Ada signs in response, and the contract is made.

Once the lessons begin, Campion shifts gears and plunges headlong into the eroticism that up to this point has remained submerged. For Ada the piano is clearly something more than a spiritual or creative outlet. When she touches the keys, she does so with the delicacy of a lover. Her passionate, cascading improvisations at the keyboard are filled with sex and repressed longing and all the other unexpressed emotions that her fragile body cannot convey. Ada's playing is a siren's song, and though her husband appears deaf to its call, Baines, the more natural, elemental creature, responds immediately.

Though Campion approaches the issue of sex through this musical metaphor, she doesn't allow the material to become dry and over-intellectualized. As a result, the scenes between Hunter and Keitel are as sexually charged as any in recent memory. While Ada plays, Baines circles behind her and kisses her neck, or sits on the floor at her feet, asking her to lift up her shirt as she plays. It's a courtship unlike any I've ever seen before, and yet these odd afternoon encounters don't seem prurient or dysfunctional, even when Baines strips off his clothes and wanders nude around the piano as Ada plays.

The erotic tension that Campion brings to these scenes is nearly excruciating. Every detail -- even the mere contrast between Keitel's thick, Minotaur physique and Hunter's swanlike delicacy -- seems to carry a palpable threat of violence. And when the tension finally erupts, it is devastating.

"The Piano" is a moody, atmospheric film that, like Campion's other work, conveys as much through suggestion and implication as by direct statement. The performances, too, are exceptionally rich and detailed. Yet on some deeper level they remain mysterious, as if Campion had insisted that the characters remain half-hidden in shadow. This is especially true of Hunter, who without a single line of spoken dialogue manages to give the most moving performance of her career as well as one of the best of the year.

As Hunter and Campion present her, Ada is a distillation of pure Gothic romanticism. With her chalk-white face and pained eyes, she brings to mind the haunted women in the novels of the Bronte sisters, or the bleak heroine in Jane Austen's "Mansfield Park." She suffers, but the source of her pain is mysterious and undiagnosed.

Judging from Campion's previous films, her primary affliction is femininity itself. In "Sweetie" (1989), "An Angel at My Table" (1990) and now "The Piano," her women are haunted creatures at the mercy of their emotions. Their blood runs with sadness, and it is out of this sexual despair that Campion forges her melancholy poetry. "The Piano" is dark, sublime music, and after it's over, you won't be able to get it out of your head.

Copyright The Washington Post

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