The Piano (1993), or Peculiar Weight

2 11 2009

I’d never heard about The Piano until last night. After a delightful dinner with friends, we conversed for what seemed like moments but was, in reality, hours, and in the course of our discourse, the subject of this film was broached. It was made imperative to me that not only did I have to see this film, but I had to review it. It was my new mission in life, and I was to make it a priority. And so I did. Not wasting any time, I tracked the film out like a wounded, shallow-breathing gazelle made out of celluloid. What I found after my extensive search and subsequent viewing of The Piano is that I cannot believe I lived in a time either before or after it. There is something so epochal about viewing this film that everything that happened before you started watching it is different than afterwards, and both of those two conditions are equally strange compared to when you’re in the moment watching it. It’s a movie that changes the way you think about Hollywood, the arts, and big-name actors, if only while you’re in the moment.

The Piano is a story-and-dialog-driven film, so there’s a LOT of stuff to cover. Like Sense and Sensibility or any Jane Austen period affair, it is filled with sweeping romance and a story that dances capriciously and wildly on the stylings of the age like a soft hammer on harpsichord strings. Set in the middle of the 19th century, a mute Scottish lass named Ada is being shipped off to rugged New Zealand after an arranged marriage. She’s being bargained off to a man named Alistair Stewart. Ada is a mysterious character, a woman who has no apparent reason to be mute, instead allowing her young daughter from a tumultuous affair with a teacher to communicate to the outside world using sign language. Her one joy in life, and her one real way of expressing herself, is with a piano that she ships all the way from Scotland. It is her means of interacting with the outside world, and she plays it obsessively in her new life on the frontier. It’s not easy living in the primordial nature of New Zealand for Ada and her daughter, and it’s even more difficult living with Alistair, whose dark demeanor and rough attitude leaves Ada cold to his embrace. The only thing that can comfort her is the piano, and when another frontiersman named Baines enters the picture, a passionate man who sees the beauty in Ada’s playing, the two find comfort where there was none for either of them before. What will happen in this odd New Zealand love triangle for these characters fashioned off the beaten trail?

If I had to say only one thing about The Piano, I would simply say that it holds an ocean of strong, almost unreadable emotion. Ada’s world is strange and harrowing, if not a little incomprehensible at times. She is strong, fiery, petulant, determined, vulnerable, dejected, and at times even manipulative; she’s a woman, real and plain and simple, flaws and all. She attracts all this larger-than-life drama because her own character is so large. It’s a fascinating character study into a character who seemingly chose not to speak.

Speaking of not speaking, the score by acclaimed composer Michael Nyman plays a very important role here. The score, you see, acts as Ada’s voice. It is her lifeline to the world, and so Nyman here envelops the audience with a powerful range of emotion that one cannot get from the lips of Ada, and therefore must be translated into the rich, sumptuous world of music. Tracks like “The Mood that Passes Through You” or “Silver Fingered Fling” are among the best piano pieces I’ve ever heard composed for a film. They’re simply a joy to hear, and if you like the feel of Romantic period piano music, then look no further than this intoxicating film. I recommend getting the soundtrack as well; I just downloaded 3 songs from it while I typed the intro to this review.

Jane Campion, a native New Zealander, uses her actors either as part of the wild majesty of her country or extreme foils to it. She captures with amazing breadth and scope the beauty of the world around us, not to mention the beauty of herĀ  subjects. An Academy Award was well deserved for this film, and her direction was definitely up to snuff, so her loss that year was completely unexpected.

Characters like Harvey Keitel’s Baines exist in relative harmony with the living, breathing island, and despite his occupation (forester! Oops!) I still felt as though he belonged in the think of it, a necessary force in the frontier. Ada, on the other hand, is a modern woman wrapped in black and wholesomely clean. She represents with her Western piano all that New Zealand is not. Holly Hunter plays Ada, and interestingly enough, played the piano on most of these songs. She’s very accomplished, and she shows her amazing chops both in front of a lens and behind a camera, which really makes me wonder why she did that horrible Saving Grace show on TNT last year. Sam Neill cuts a malevolent figure as the tragic but ruthless Alistair, and while I honestly feel a little bad for him, since frigid Ada never really gave him much of a chance, he still had a lot of opportunity to not be such a tool. You’ll see what I mean when you watch it, but this guy really knows how to ruin a good time!

With a wonderful director at the helm, a well-evinced script, a legendary score, and a stable of quality actors (including even an early turn by Ms. Anna Paquin), The Piano is a movie that challenges us. It’s a period piece that throws emotions at us as if we were a ship out at sea. There is a lot to experience in this ever-expanding chasm of feeling that will leave you definitely changed in some small ways after you check it out. Do not miss this Oscar nominee from ’93, or you will definitely regret it. Hell, I regret it and I didn’t know anything about it, so if you ignore my recommendation, you’re crossing your luck at your hazard. I give The Piano 9 hammers against the strings out of 10. A high recommendation!

Tomorrow I enjoy Dazed and Confused, DUDE! Until then!!!