in Oscars Fortnight

The Piano (1993)

The 66th Academy Awards (1994)
Nominations: 8
Wins: 3

Initially, my reasoning for picking The Piano to review was pretty obvious, as just like back in 1994, Jane Campion has one of her career-best films in the Oscar race this year. However, I became a little nervous about this pick after Campion made that weird comment about the Williams sisters at the Critic’s Choice Awards. Though she’s apologized since then and it seems the Oscar news cycle has moved on to claiming CODA as the frontrunner now? I don’t know. Anyways, even if The Power of The Dog doesn’t win a ton of Oscars, it’s in good company with The Piano, a simply ravishing and sensuous work that didn’t do so bad Oscar-wise considering it was up against Schindler’s List at the 66th Oscars.

The Piano takes place in New Zealand in the mid-1800s, where a mute Scottish woman named Ada (played by Holly Hunter) has been sold into marriage by her father to a frontiersman named Alastair (Sam Neill), bringing her young daughter Flora (Anna Paquin) along with her. Also along with her, she has brought her piano which she almost sees as a vessel through which she can express herself as an alternative to mere speech. However, the piano is too bulky and inessential for the settlers living there to want to lug up into the hills where Alastair and Ada now live.

Ada eventually enlists the help of George Baines (Harvey Keitel), a former sailor working with the Māori people living in the region, to retrieve the piano from the beach it was dropped on. After retrieving the piano, Baines finds himself attracted both to Ada as well as her piano playing, so he haggles with Alastair for the piano in exchange for some land. This results in him owning the piano and asking for lessons from Ada, though it quickly becomes clear that the lessons are just a front for the sexually deprived Baines to let Ada play her beloved piano while he gets to watch her do “things he likes” while playing. Though Ada is hesitant about the whole situation, she still goes through with it before eventually developing feelings for Baines. The two end up sleeping together, and Alastair spies on them doing this after Ada has spent the entire movie resenting him, which causes him to lash out at her violently.

Since I just finished watching this movie and it’s a film that taps into a feeling and mood more than plot or storytelling specifics, I’m not sure I have a ton of enlightening thoughts on what I responded to about this movie. That said, the easiest place to start is that it just looks gorgeous. New Zealand is one of those places that doesn’t get represented onscreen a ton (outside of Lord of the Rings and the films of Campion and Taika Waititi), but every time it does it really feels like one of the most breathtaking places on Earth. In The Piano, the emphasis on the visuals of New Zealand’s terrain doesn’t ever feel indulgent because the country’s untapped wilderness is completely a part of the story. These characters are constantly at odds with the rain, the mud, the trees, and the lack of civilization, and it’s hard to imagine that their actions aren’t shaped in some way by this unwieldy environment.

Another thing that you have to talk about in regard to this movie is how strangely sexy it is. There is a kind of forceful repression in Hunter’s character that is not only informed by her being sold into marriage as a sort of show-wife, but also in the fact that despite living in this rugged wilderness, she is still expected to wear the cumbersome dresses of the Western world. However, Keitel’s character clearly unleashes something in her, which has its own complicated gender dynamics that are a little hard to know completely what to make of. But at the end of the day, their relationship feels like this animalistic indulgence in the face of the vague traces of “civilized society” that has informed their lives up until this point.

As for the Oscars that were handed to The Piano, it’s hard to argue with Hunter’s Best Actress Oscar for this role, since it both requires an extra skill in having to sign, but also has a remarkable emotional depth to it. 11-year-old Anna Paquin also gives a very strong performance, even if it’s an Oscar I often forget about since she wasn’t quite the youngest actress to ever win an acting Oscar (that distinction goes to Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon). The fact that Jane Campion won Best Original Screenplay is a little odd, since I would say the film’s direction is far more impressive than its writing, though I will say the most surprising thing about The Piano‘s screenplay is that it’s not based on a novel when it absolutely feels like it should be. But hey, we’ll see if the Oscars rectify this and hand Campion a Best Director Oscar for The Power of The Dog, even though she once again faces stiff competition from our pal Stevie Spielberg.