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`The Piano' Pounds With Intensity

IT would be hard to overstate the excitement that greeted Jane Campion's new movie, ``The Piano,'' at the Cannes Film Festival last spring.

Advance buzz for the picture had been ecstatic, and this frequently has an adverse effect - building expectations so high that nothing could satisfy them. Once the first showing of ``The Piano'' was over, though, debate centered not on whether it was a good movie or a poor one, but whether it was ``as good'' or merely ``almost as good'' as prescreening gossip had promised.

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Now the movie is arriving in American theaters, and a few critics have started swimming against the tide. Some just want to be different from their colleagues. Others have genuine hesitations about the drama, which they find contrived, or overlong, or more arty than profound. There is some truth to all these objections, although Campion's filmmaking is so strong that the picture manages to sail beyond such problems.

But most reviewers are still in love with ``The Piano,'' and it's a sure bet that most ticketbuyers will be too, although the movie's explicit sex and brief but harrowing violence may put it off-limits for some. Look for a box-office smash, appearances on dozens of 10-best lists, and some Academy Award nominations for good measure.

Campion, a New Zealander of European ancestry, got the idea for ``The Piano'' when she learned that during the Victorian age, many Englishwomen who emigrated to New Zealand brought pianos with them - despite the obvious difficulty of transporting these bulky objects across the sea on 19th-century ships. This impressed Campion, who saw such determination as a sign of purpose, confidence, and resolve.

From this seed grew the character of Ada, a young Englishwoman who arrives in New Zealand for marriage to a well-to-do landowner she has never met. She is a strong-willed and self-possessed person, and also an eccentric one.

For reasons known only to herself, Ada has refused to speak since childhood, and communicates by writing messages on a tablet that hangs from her neck.

Her only other method of expression is through her piano, which becomes a focus of dispute from the moment she steps on New Zealand's shore. Fetching her from the beach where she has landed, her husband's servants are happy to bring her, her nine-year-old daughter, and her household possessions to the house. But the piano is too heavy and troublesome, so they abandon it.

Desperately upset by this, Ada refuses to consummate her marriage. Meanwhile, the piano is salvaged by an illiterate worker who uses it as a tool for sexual blackmail at her expense. Later he falls genuinely in love with her, however, and this brings out higher qualities in both characters.

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Over the course of the movie, Ada, her husband, and her lover find their relationship growing ever more troubled and complex. This leads to a frighteningly violent climax followed by a surprisingly warm and optimistic conclusion.

`THE Piano'' gains much of its effectiveness from Campion's directing style, which combines the dreamlike aura of her early film ``Sweetie'' with the sensitivity to feelings that made her last movie, ``An Angel at My Table,'' so extraordinary.

Although the action threatens to become melodramatic and even overwrought at times, the imaginative power of Campion's images and emotional insights (especially with regard to the heroine) rarely allow the story to seem artificial or exaggerated.

Also impressive are the performances - especially by Hunter, who not only brings unexpected depth to her character but does an exquisite job of playing Michael Nyman's lovely piano music on the soundtrack.

Sam Neill does sturdy work as Ada's long-suffering husband, and Harvey Keitel is well-cast as her mercurial lover. Applause also goes to the talented Maori performers who play indigenous residents of the New Zealand region.

* ``The Piano'' has an R rating. It contains scenes of nudity, sexual activity, and intense violence.

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