Spoilers for "The Piano" after the jump:
There may not be a better performance anywhere in film history than the one Holly Hunter gives in "The Piano". We associate acting with both body language and speech, and in playing a young woman who hasn't spoken in years she's forced to make do with only one of the two. This performance is all body language, but there isn't a moment where what Ada McGrath is thinking isn't plainly obvious on the actress's face. It's an unforgettable portrayal*, and one that would have made the film worth seeing even if it was the only thing to recommend.
Jane Campion's triumphant, beautifully shot masterpiece has numerous other virtues, though. It paints a brilliantly evocative picture of love and desire through the eyes of its characters: each of whom is realized with great sensitivity. While the main focus of the story is Ada and her piano, the supporting characters are equally engaging.
One is her husband Alistair Stewart (Sam Neil), who marries her before he's even met her. Ada is shipped from her home to the New Zealand frontier, along with her daughter Flora (Anna Paquin), her personal belongings, and her piano. The piano winds up getting left behind once they arrive, due to the impracticality of transporting it all the way back to their home. Alistair does his best to be warm and welcoming to his new wife, but he misjudges just how much the piano means to her. As a result, she quickly becomes distant towards him: particularly after he sells her beloved instrument to a friend named George Baines (Harvey Keitel) for a few acres of land.
It's important to note that "The Piano" never paints Alistair as a villain. Early on it’s made clear that he genuinely loves Ada, and wants her to love him. He sells the piano because he reasons that Ada can both still play it and give Baines lessons, and doesn't seem to comprehend her devotion to it. But viewers know better after just one glimpse of the way Ada's face lights up while she's playing it.
Baines knows it too. He has become attracted to Ada after first witnessing her play, and begins to use the piano as a tool to seduce her: offering to let her buy it back a few keys at a time by doing things like lifting her skirt while she plays. At first Ada is disgusted, but her desperation is such that she agrees. All of this goes on under the nose of Alistair, and at some point the relationship becomes something more.
Nothing is as it seems. Initially we're led to believe that Baines is simply lusting after Ada, but as time goes on it becomes apparent that he's truly in love with her. When his advances are met with cold indifference, it soon begins to drive him mad with longing. Hunter's portrayal of Ada during these scenes is initially the picture of innocence, but soon enough she allows glimpses of the illicit pleasure these games (coupled with the ecstasy of piano playing) are giving her. When Baines finally gives her the piano back, she realizes her desire for him and the two make love.
This act has serious consequences for Ada when her husband discovers it, and eventually leads to Alistair committing a terrible act (chopping off one of Ada’s fingers) after he discovers her trying to send Baines a secret message. All of this is facilitated in part by Flora, whose jealousy of her mother’s secret relationship is portrayed with terrific intensity by Paquin. From there it becomes not so much a question of love but one of life, and whether Ada truly wants it.
The climax of the story is stunning in both its beauty and terror. Seemingly unable to play, Ada attempts to commit suicide by attaching herself to the piano and having it thrown overboard. It’s an ending that truly could go either way, but Campion’s decision to allow Ada’s fighting spirit to overcome her despair feels appropriate and earned. As played by Hunter, she’s someone who deserves to find some sort of happiness. The film’s final few moments feature her starting a new life with Baines: a fresh start that seemed impossible just a few moments ago.
Hunter and Paquin both won Oscars for their performances, and richly deserved them. Keitel and Neil don’t deserve to be overlooked, though. The latter makes Alistair into a surprisingly sympathetic character, to the point where it’s difficult to hate him even after what he does to Ada. And Keitel brings a surprising vulnerability to Baines that allows us to understand why Ada might fall for him.
Finally there’s the breathtaking camerawork and scenery, which ranges from truly intimate (just about every scene involving Ada) to wide and sweeping (that beautiful long shot of the piano on the beach). Campion gives the film an almost mystical quality at times: something that serves to heighten its captivating effect. There are movies better than “The Piano”, but not many. It’s truly a magical experience.
* Hunter also played all the piano pieces herself. All the more reason to regard this performance as one for the ages.