Monday, December 18, 2017

Notes on... The Piano (1993)

Jane Campion's 1993 film 'The Piano' is, for the most part, just what it appears to be: a big, rigid, slavishly realized period drama of the sort that were popular in the 90's. Women wear bonnets and gaze wistfully out of windows, men intercept love letters from their wives to other men, and quarreling parties topple into the mud, ruining their finery. Still, it contains some interesting wrinkles. Holly Hunter's mute, disempowered Ada starts out as the victim of voyeuristic coercion at the hands of a man, played by Harvey Keitel, but surprisingly ends up as the sexual aggressor when they begin a physical relationship. It's a rare instance of female sexual reclamation, even rarer when you consider her double-outsider status (as a single-mother and disabled person). There are also the figures of the Maori people, natives of New Zealand, who shadow the white protagonists; they serve as cheap comic relief early on, but end up providing an endearing cultural counterpoint, as uninhibited and grounded as the European characters are repressed and puritanical. In terms of more traditional criteria, the acting is uniformly strong. Hunter is otherworldly in the central role, Sam Neil is at his hangdog best as the cuckolded husband, as relatable as he is contemptible, and Keitel, as usual for this period, is magnetically intense and totally naked. Anna Paquin, as a young girl biding her time while her mother has her assignations, may be the best of them all. She dances, she sings poorly, she reinvents her life story, she inadvertently betrays her mother. In other words, she is just like a real child.