It is the mid-nineteenth century. Ada is a mute who has a young daughter, Flora. In an arranged marriage she leaves her native Scotland accompanied by her daughter and her beloved piano. Life in the rugged forests of New Zealand’s South Island is not all she may have imagined and nor is her relationship with her new husband Stewart. She suffers torment and loss when Stewart sells her piano to a neighbour, George. Ada learns from George that she may earn back her piano by giving him piano lessons, but only with certain other conditions attached. At first Ada despises George but slowly their relationship is transformed and this propels them into a dire situation.
The Piano is a Gothic costume-romance about the language of love, desire and the paradox of self-determining female agency. At a time when women’s positions in society were defined by patriarchal repression, the arranged marriage of Ada (Holly Hunter) to the middle-class Stewart (Sam Neill) who is colonising the unrelenting New Zealand bush, offers her and her daughter Flora (Anna Paquin) little choice over their future. Ada’s voice-over is a Scottish child’s – maybe Flora’s – narrating her apprehension over the forthcoming journey. However, visually we discover her self-appointed autonomy and resistance to female positions through her defiant muteness from the age of six, via her gestures, sign language, written notes and translations through her daughter. Ada’s expressions of emotion and desire are also articulated through music as we see her lost in the ecstasy of playing her piano. It is a rare moment of unselfconscious joy in the film, halted by an intrusive servant.
Cinematically framed to mirror and conspire with each other, Ada and Flora, in their restrictive dark Victorian bonnets and hooped skirts, struggle to negotiate the landing, the boat and the ruthless waves when they arrive in New Zealand, as rough sailors deliver them unceremoniously onto an empty, white and hostile beach. All the trappings of Victorian Scotland, symbolised by Ada’s household items of luggage, lie like abandoned anomalies on an ancient shore. But even more difficult is the unloading of Ada’s prized possession – the piano; symbol of Western civilisation in an uncultivated land, it stands in its wooden crating against the oncoming tide, waiting like Ada, to be unpacked, touched and resound with its own emotional tones.
Michael Nyman’s music in The Piano very much defines Ada’s character. Impressed with Nyman’s minimalist scores for Peter Greenaway’s films, Campion had requested a romantic, lyrical, poetic and conservative piece of expressive music for her film. Nyman was inspired by nineteenth-century Scottish ballads and Mendelsohn’s songs without words and composed ahead of shooting, in collaboration with Campion’s script, unlike contemporary scores which are added in post-production. When Holly Hunter was finally cast, Nyman then levelled his score to match her highly competent musical ability. This allowed Holly Hunter to invest Ada, as a nineteenth-century composer, with her own emotional commitment through the music, and intervene further in the character creation.
Claudia Gorbman notes that the ‘authenticity gained in this process’ (in Margolis 2000: 47) owes much to this personalised approach as, rather than presenting Ada as just a skilful or professional player of a nineteenth-century musical repertoire, Ada produces the music from her own being as a composer and female artist with an inner language beyond the spoken word. This allows the music to move beyond its usual illustrative function in classical cinema, to express her more ambiguous subjectivity and emotional language, as seen in her playing of her piano in the film, although this goes unrecognised by her new husband Alasdair Stewart.
So in a muddied, restrictive suit, formal top hat and showing Victorian discomfort at finding Ada and Flora sheltering under the hoops of women’s undergarments on the New Zealand beach, when her husband meets them, he pragmatically decides to leave the piano behind, and unwittingly rejects his new wife’s voice and emotional connection. It is rather Baines (Harvey Keitel), more emotionally attuned and liberated by Maori culture, who she stubbornly persuades to take her back to the beach. Her expressive and intimate playing of the piano, with Flora dancing and cartwheeling exuberantly across the sand, then entrances Baines who has clearly never seen women behave with such wild abandon.
He thus begins the erotically charged negotiations for the piano and Ada; he offers 80 acres of land to Stewart for the piano and then he and the Maori’s transport it through the all-consuming mud and bush to his house. Ignoring again Ada’s ownership of the piano, Stewart insists Ada gives Baines lessons. But in reality Baines only wants to listen and touch Ada, and in private negotiates with her to remove items of her clothes and permission for him to touch her, in exchange for the piano.
It’s a fragile bargain which ostensibly positions Ada as passive victim of male power, prostituting herself for the sale of individual keys. But Jane Campion inverts the liaison to reveal more subtle tones of female/male desire. Ada’s rejection of Baines’ advances – halting the music in protest of his physical invasions of her personal space, reluctantly removing her clothes, lying rigidly on the bed with him – demonstrate female resistance to patriarchal control even as he takes advantage of her position.
These scenes also simultaneously unfold a reluctant awakening of Ada’s sensual desire, reiterated in the mise en scéne and the cinematography. The building up of the rare soft-focus amber glow, a palette specifically reserved for intimate moments in the film, contrasts with the predominantly suffocating sea tones of the inhospitable bush in which ‘The air seems green as at the bottom of a deep sea’ (Campion 1993: 17). The framing, positioning and cutting between Ada and Baines, also offers both the male and female perspectives of erotic desire, resulting in a levelling of gender power.
In Visual Pleasure and the Cinema, Mulvey demonstrated that the look of the camera in classical Hollywood cinema privileges a voyeuristic gaze positioning the woman as object of male desire. But Stella Bruzzi, in Desire and the Costume Film, demonstrates Campion’s progressive, feminist inversion of Mulvey’s theory. While costume can function as a fetish for male desire, Baines’ removal of his clothes alongside Ada’s is a vestimentary performance of parity, and a cinematic offer of sensual pleasure in the male/female body. And while the scene of Baines naked and alone as he dusts and caresses the piano, could be seen as perversely festishistic, it reveals unusually, under Campion’s sensitive direction and softened amber lighting, a sensual vulnerability through the eroticising of the male protagonist for a female spectator. Like Marvell’s poem of courtship in To His Coy Mistress, in the conclusion of this cinematic ritual, Campion awards the final decision to the woman. So when Baines believes the desire is non-mutual he releases Ada and gives her the piano unconditionally. Once given true free will over her sexuality, Ada returns inexorably to Baines to consummate the relationship.
Peter Brooks notes that nineteenth-century melodrama is defined by its polarised moral codes in which good and evil battle against each other for the ultimate triumph of virtue. Its conflict is symptomatic of a spiritual demise in nineteenth-century culture and the imposing of moral meaning on a familial structure. Hence women, wives, mothers were idealised as the moral locus of the family, the angels in the house who function as integers of stability in an ever-changing society of industrial progress and shifting demographics. Fiction, theatre and paintings emblematised this struggle for spiritual and mythical meaning, or what Brooks defines as the moral occult, through the representation of recognisably evil villains, worthy heroes and innocent heroines in distress, with a clear-cut resolution of upholding moral virtue or being punished for deviance.
Within these conventions of Victorian morality Ada must also pay a price for her adultery. Infused by Bronte’s wild landscape of Wuthering Heights, Campion films in a Gothic, moody, ruthless atmosphere as the plot reaches terrifying and mythological proportions. Ada slips away through the unforgiving mud to meet Baines, and we witness the terrible consequences of female deviance in nineteenth-century culture when Stewart, who has spied on Ada and Baines making love, blocks her way and brutally attempts to rape her. Ironically in her struggle to escape, it is Ada’s hooped petticoats, so representative of Victorian restriction, which protect her, as well as the arrival of Flora on the scene. But in the final outcome, when Ada sends her daughter to give Baines a piano key inscribed with her love, Flora betrays her to Stewart. Ominous as a wood-chopper in a Brothers Grimm tale, Stewart wielding his axe, drags Ada from the house, holds her hand onto the woodblock and brutally chops off her finger. In shock she staggers away, sinks slowly into the mud, her ballooning skirt holding her up like fragile doll.
In this violent scene, Stewart is represented as the Bluebeard villain, the oppressive patriarch who owns his wife as property. But, this melodramatic villainy is also tempered for a more contemporary audience. Campion represents him also as a victim of his cultural and class limitations, the outsider, the voyeur, unable to relate to the feminine world of his strange wife and as Campion comments in interview, ‘his shell, his place, his future have been broken by her’ (1994: 72).
But Campion’s feminist plot ultimately reframes nineteenth-century female restrictions to favour Ada’s personal fulfilment, so ultimately, once Ada recovers, Stewart releases her. As Baines, Ada and Flora leave the settlement to sail to Wellington, the camera finally reveals glimpses of hopeful blue sky through the mangled tree-scape. But, in a final challenge to her obdurate willpower, once on the boat Ada rejects the coffin-like piano and putting her foot in the uncoiling rope hauling her piano into the ocean, she is pulled overboard. She sinks down into the blue ocean and wonders, in the dreamy voice-over, whether through her silence it is death she is, and has been, choosing, now and throughout her life – a symbolic drowning reiterated in the suffocating and sea-saturated tones of the cinematography throughout the film. But finally, in the deep underwater quiet, she resists, struggles out of her boot and rises, much to her own surprise, towards the light to start a new life with Baines.
It is an innocent, romantic love that Campion presents as idealised in a mythical fairy-tale sense. Ada, in choosing the love which has woken her like a princess from her deep sleep, voyages from six-year muteness towards a consenting adult relationship, finally articulated in her motivation to reject silence for speech. In Brooks’ terms her text of muteness has finally brought redemption for her.
But Ada’s muteness is also unusual given the predominance of spoken dialogue in films since 1927. Michael Nyman noted one function of his score was to replace dialogue and in this the music, alongside the gestural performance codes, functions like the international language of the silent film era where translated intertitles moved the narrative forward. In The Piano, the subtitles also subtly link transnational cultures of Maori speech and Ada’s sign-language although politically this is precariously close to reiterating colonial and gender hierarchies. But on a commercial level this silent film aesthetic cleverly integrates international cultural boundaries for export of a crossover Art cinema/mainstream title in the world market. Margolis notes that, produced in Australia with French/US funding and Hollywood stars, The Piano succeeds in promoting New Zealand national identity through location choices and the use of Maori and pakeha (white New Zealand) culture, managing the ‘conflicting demands between the culturally specific and the internationally acceptable’ (2000: 5).
Ultimately the Piano was an award-winning, critical and popular success and while marking a shift in Campion’s work from the challenging plot construction of Sweetie (1989) to the more coherent classical narrative costume drama of Portrait of a Lady (1996), The Piano also reiterates Campion’s thematic concerns with cultural and historical shifts in male/female relationships, power, autonomy and the eroticising of female desire through a feminist cinematic lexicon, to articulate female narratives which have traditionally been silenced.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Australia, New Zealand, France. Production Company: Australian Film Commission, CiBy 2000, Jan Chapman Productions. Director and Screenwriter: Jane Campion. Music: Michael Nyman. Cinematographer: Stuart Dryburgh. Editor: Veronica Jenet. Cast: Holly Hunter (Ada), Harvey Keitel (Baines), Sam Neill (Stewart), Anna Paquin (Flora).]
Peter Brooks, The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama and the Mode of Excess, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1995.
Stella Bruzzi, Undressing the Cinema: Clothing and Identity in the Movies, London and New York, Routledge, 1997.
Stella Bruzzi, ‘Jane Campion: Costume Drama and Reclaiming Women’s Past’, in Pam Cook and Philip Dodd (eds), Women and Film: A Sight and Sound Reader, London, Scarlet Press, 1993, pp. 232–42.
Jane Campion, The Piano, London, Bloomsbury, 1993.
Jane Campion and Kate Pullinger, The Piano: A Novel, London, Bloomsbury, 1994.
Claudia Gorbman, ‘Music in the Piano’, in Harriet Margolis, ed., Jane Campion’s The Piano, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2000, pp. 42–58.
Misha Kavka, Jennifer Lawn, Mary Paul, eds, Gothic NZ: The Darker Side of Kiwi Culture, Otago University Press, Dunedin, New Zealand, 2006.
Harriet Margolis, ed., Jane Campion’s The Piano, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2000.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.