Lionsgate // 1993 // 120 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // January 22nd, 2012
Jane Campion's masterpiece arrives on Blu-ray.
"Your playing is plain and true, and that is what I like."
The year is 1850. Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter, Broadcast News) hasn't spoken a word since the age of six. No one knows why. Ada is mother to a young girl named Flora (Anna Paquin, True Blood), who is chatty enough to compensate for her mother's silence. The identity of Flora's father and what Ada's relationship with him was like are unknown, but we do know that Ada's father has just agreed to marry her off to New Zealand landowner Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill, Jurassic Park). Ada and Flora are shipped off to their new home, along with a host of personal belongings: clothes, toys, cookware...and a piano. It's determined that the piano is too cumbersome to transport to Alisdair's house, so it's left on the beach in its crate. Recognizing an opportunity, Alisdair's lowly associate George Baines (Harvey Keitel, Mean Streets) trades Alisdair a patch of land in exchange for the piano.
Ada is furious when she hears the news; the piano was her prized possession. Even so, she'll still have an opportunity to play it: George has requested that Ada give him piano lessons. She reluctantly agrees, but is mortified when George reveals that he's willing to trade the piano back to her in exchange for a series of small sexual favors. She wants to refuse, but her burning desire to have her beloved instrument back overwhelms any inhibitions. So begins the strange, complicated saga of an exceptionally unusual relationship.
The thing I admire most about the movies of Jane Campion is the manner in which they fearlessly dive into difficult, improbable subject matter without a trace of self-doubt. Such brazen fearlessness can just as easily lead to disaster (Holy Smoke!) as triumph (Sweetie), but one has to admire Campion's refusal to compromise her distinctive vision. Think about it: The Piano spotlights an inexplicably mute protagonist, offers a story that could very easily be dismissed as either creepy exploitation or absurdly soapy paperback novel material and features characters who can't be easily categorized even (especially?) when their behavior is profoundly noble or villainous. The story is unlikely, but the conviction of Campion's direction and the skill of the performances persuades that this is precisely how the lives of these specific people in this specific place at this specific time might play out.
At its best, The Piano plays like the lost masterwork of one of the Bronte sisters. I suppose it can be described as a romance, but it would be more accurate to describe it as Romantic. Between the flowing dresses, sounds of crashing waves, the achingly warm yet dim visual palette, the repressed emotion, the strains of Michael Nyman's sweeping score and the haunting atmosphere, it's hard to resist sighing aloud in admiration. Campion infuses this lush backdrop with memorable sequences of gothic melodrama and lurid sexual fantasy, but the characters are so carefully-developed that these moments feel intensely personal and truthful rather than broadly exploitative.
It would have been exceptionally easy to establish these characters as simple types: the long-suffering mute woman who struggles to find ways to express her deepest inner feelings, the haughty and brutal husband who bought and paid for her, the nobly romantic laborer who wants to provide her with a better life and the innocent child attempting to make the best of a new world she doesn't understand. Fortunately, The Piano moves beyond such basic characterization and embraces the befuddling complexities of these people. Yes, they will eventually assume their roles as heroes and villains, but no one is entirely innocent. Consider George Baines: we eventually come to regard his tender infatuation with Ada as a touching element, but that doesn't change the fact that the initial manner in which he generates a relationship with her is incredibly creepy at best. Campion doesn't attempt to excuse the uglier actions of her characters, but she does her best to make us understand them -- even when they're so ugly that we don't really want to.
The actors are similarly committed to sticking with the material, and the central quartet of performers all turn in exceptional work. Holly Hunter is saddled with the most challenging part, which she handles with unforced naturalism in her Oscar-winning performance. Her fierce, demanding eyes often say more than words could, and she never allows her lack of speech to seem like an actor's affectation. Harvey Keitel and Sam Neill are middle-aged men with slightly rough exteriors (though Neill is a good deal more polished than Keitel), but they're both fundamentally lonely souls looking for something or someone to fill the void inside of them. The adults are all repressed and/or reserved in some way, so little Anna Paquin tends to grab our attention with ease in her turn as a loud, wildly imaginative, completely unfiltered little scamp. It's no wonder that she also took home an Academy Award for her performance.
The Piano (Blu-ray) has received a mostly satisfactory 1080p/1.78:1 transfer. Detail is strong throughout and depth is impressive; black levels also benefit from considerable depth. The only issue of note is the grain, which is very heavy during certain portions of the film and almost entirely absent during others. I don't mind a moderate amount of grain present (it's certainly preferable to excessive DNR), but the inconsistency is what makes it a little distracting in this case. That aside, I don't have any significant issues with it. The DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio track is slightly disappointing, as this is a movie which begs for the sweeping surround treatment. Those scenes in which Nyman's lush music plays as the characters trek through a dimly-lit forest would be great in surround sound, but they seem a little suppressed by this track. At least everything is clean and clear. Supplements are limited to a theatrical trailer.
The Blu-ray release is slightly lacking in the technical department, but The Piano remains the crowning achievement of Jane Campion's hit-and-miss career.
Review content copyright © 2012 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
* English (CC)
Running Time: 120 Minutes
Release Year: 1993
MPAA Rating: Rated R