Top Fifty Films of the 90s — Number Forty-One


#41 — The Piano (Jane Campion, 1993)
Jane Campion’s film leaves a stamp on the memory. It’s not because of the plot or the acting or the achingly lovely visual landscapes. It is indeed a combination of all of these things. More than most films, it is the feel of these elements drawn together and the emotions they inspire in the viewing that endure. I can’t always find ready access to the details of the film in my memory, but the sensation of watching it is easy to recapture. Its dreamlike imagery merges with tightly constructed, deeply considered conflicts of human frailty to create something with an almost hypnotic quality. It feels like a quiet march to a grave ending. Even the pings of hope have an elegiacal feel about them. The Piano is immersive, as thoroughly overwhelming as the ocean depths that play a part in its narrative.

Set in the mid-1800s, the film tracks the struggles of a mute woman named Ada who arrives on the shores of an untamed New Zealand with her daughter in tow. She has been sold off by her father into marriage, though she quickly finds herself more intrigued by another man who lives a willfully unrefined life among Maori tribesmen and reaches out to her with a brutish urgency. The film is, at its core, a romance, though one that is tilted in an unfamiliar manner. It doesn’t deliver its story with some sort of sun-dappled wish fulfillment, nor clenched romanticizing of breathy tragedy. It is sweeping, but matter of fact. It finds as much poetry in a frayed stocking as it does in the expanse of looming, endless nature. It has a spirited roughness, as if constant acknowledging that life is far messier than fiction often concedes. Campion delivers it all with an assured, distinctive voice.

And yet voice is literally what she strips away from her lead actress. As Ada, Holly Hunter has no real dialogue to speak, leaving her without one of her most notable instruments, her southern-charged verbal acumen that spills out words like rocks tumbling dangerously down a mountainside. In most of her other most notable performances, she draws authority and builds character from those splendid spoken assaults. In The Piano she must draw upon other tools to achieve the necessary expressiveness to carry the film, finding fresh creativity in the physicality of her work, deeper reservoirs of feeling in the depths of her eyes. She can’t explain who Ada is, so she must show it instead, and the restrictiveness is paradoxically freeing.

Campion draws the performance out of Hunter beautifully, and captures it with care and empathy. It’s a delicate matter, this story she’s constructed, this way she’s chosen to tell it. It would be so easy for The Piano to become unbearably dramatic or even overly precious, tangled up by its lovelorn intimacy. Instead, it is strong and serious and purposeful, propelled by Michael Nyman’s lean, striking score. It is a film that is of its moment, and yet also timeless. In Campion’s careful hands, it’s all as natural as a suddenly expelled breath after waiting tensely for some bit of light to pierce the clouds.

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