Country: Co-Production between New Zealand and France
Director: Jane Campion
Screenwriter: Jane Campion
Cast: Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel, Sam Neill, Anna Paquin
Run Time: 2 Hours
Availability: Not Currently Streaming. Avaliable for Digital Rental & Purchase via Amazon and Vudu. DVD & Blu-Ray via Lionsgate Home Video
I know absolutely nothing about the complexities of human romantic relationships. Why people fall in love is a complete mystery to me, especially if there is an unfair power dynamic in the relationship. An example of that type of relationship can be seen in this weeks film, Jane Campion’s 1993 romance “The Piano.” One character has something the other wants, and uses it to take advantage of them. It’s meant to be a gripping romance of two lonely characters falling in love. To this film lover however, it came across as uncomfortable and exploitative, and I am in the minority here. Perhaps now I understand how Roger Ebert felt upon his viewing of “Blue Velvet.”
Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter) is a talented pianist that for unknown reasons has been a mute since the age of six. Her father marries her off to Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill), a frontiersman who is colonizing land in New Zealand. Ada leaves her native Scotland with her daughter Flora (Anna Paquin) and, among their possessions, her beloved piano. When Alisdair arrives to pick up his new wife, he tells her they cannot bring it with them. Alisdair’s assistant George Baines (Harvey Keitel) says he will take ownership of the piano and give him a piece of land for it. Baines also wants Ada to give him lessons. However, these lessons are a way for Baines to be sexual with Ada. He tells her that she can earn the piano back, key-by-key, in exchange for different favors. There is a scale, and each favor has a value to it: Touch of her dress is one key, laying together is 5 keys, etc.. Throughout these “lessons,” Ada and Baines develop romantic feelings for each other. Alisdair however does not take kindly to this blossoming romance.
The plot sounds like something out of a Nicholas Sparks or Harlequin romance novel. However, I don’t find it to be very romantic. Baines knows how much the piano means to Ada, and he takes full advantage of her situation. People may justify his actions by saying he doesn’t have sex with her, at least not in the initial lessons. In fact, critics in their reviews described Baines as a nice guy who is perhaps just lonely and needs companionship. To me, that doesn’t matter. Touching a woman, in any sexual context when she doesn’t want it, is wrong. His actions make him come across as a scumbag. Even though, SPOILER ALERT, the two end up together and are happy, it doesn’t feel right. How is a relationship built on an unfair power dynamic meant to be romantic?. If you had Harvey Keitel doing the same thing in a Martin Scorsese or Abel Ferrera movie, it would be disturbing and sleazy. For as sappy and saccharine Nicholas Sparks novels can be at least, in the ones I have read anyways, the characters are on an equal playing field.
Despite the criticisms I have of its content, there are merits to “The Piano.” The performances are fantastic. Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin won oscars for their material, and deservedly so. Hunter articulates more emotion with her use of body language, facial expressions and British sign language than a lot of people do with their voice. Paquin’s performance as Fiona is some of the best child acting captured on film. She articulates the hard, complex emotions a child her age might feel going through this experience, while still retaining her innocence. Sam Neill has the least interesting role, but does well with what is given. Seeing Harvey Keitel in a film like this is a shock, but he does well and tries to make his character likable. Michael Nyman’s score is filled with plenty of beautiful, lush piano work, all performed wonderfully by Holly Hunter. The setting is unique, a dry, marshy swampland, and cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh beautifully captures that grunginess. Using the Maori people, and having them speak their own language is a nice, piece of attention to detail. The editing however, could have been better. At one point in the film Hunter and Paquin are left on a beach, and I was not sure if they were being marooned or if they were there by choice.
I do enjoy a good romance film. “Annie Hall,” “(500) Days of Summer,” “When Harry Met Sally…” are a few that come to my mind. These films work for me because they don’t create a sense of uncomfortableness or unease. I want to see the progression of their relationship and if they end up together. “The Piano” however did not do that for me. Impressive on a technical but the storytelling did not work for me. Is it worthy of being on a list of the greatest films of all time? I don’t think so.
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