Jane Campion’s Oscar-winning drama The Piano celebrated its 25th anniversary in May. Here in England, it’s enjoyed a re-release in select cinemas over the last week. Written and directed by Campion, the New Zealand production was made for a budget of $7 million, but went on to claim $140 million worldwide. Its brilliance, and its many awards, have secured it a place in cinematic history.
With a stellar cast including Holly Hunter, Anna Paquin, Sam Neill (who was in another box office success in 1993 – Jurassic Park), and Harvey Keitel, the 1850s period drama still boasts some exceptional cinematography and set pieces.
The opening scenes focus on the sight of a lone piano stranded on a secluded beach. It belongs to Ada McGrath, a mute Scotswoman whose daughter Flora has journeyed with her to New Zealand. McGrath’s father has sold her into a marriage with local frontiersman Alisdair Stewart (Neill).
Stewart claims there isn’t room for the piano in his home – he sells it to Baines (Keitel), a retired sailor with notable Māori-inspired tattoos on his body. McGrath, furious, is forced into increasingly desperate scenarios in an attempt to claim back her beloved instrument.
What plays out is a haunting, emotional, and beautifully shot film that seems to have a subtle hint of mournful blue overlaying its every scene. The performances are universally excellent, its soundtrack is inspired, and there remains the memorable mise-en-scène, particularly with the piano resting uncomfortably on a beach as waves lap at its legs. It’s one of the defining scenes from 1990s cinema.
25 Years On
The Piano’s legacy is impressive and had sweeping, long-lasting results for many involved in the production. Campion still directs, of course, but the 1993 film is considered her masterpiece. She also remains the only woman to have won the top prize from the Cannes Film Festival – the Palme d’Or.
For its 25th anniversary, many media publications have reappraised it. The likes of The Guardian handed over a perfect 5/5. Other critics, such as Dr. Mark Kermode, celebrated its many achievements and emotional (even philosophical) scope, despite not being overly fond of the work.
The film’s themes, and portrayal of female characters up against adversity, have prompted some critics to suggest it’s a feminist text. Journalists such as Tara Brady, writing for the Irish Times, argued otherwise.
“Campion herself did not think that she was fashioning a feminist classic. Speaking to Interview magazine in 1992 while she was making the film, she said: ‘I don’t belong to any clubs, and I dislike club mentality of any kind, even feminism – although I do relate to the purpose and point of feminism.'”
Others have stated its feminist message falls somewhat flat, as Brady again highlights:
“The feminist author Bell Hooks has argued that The Piano falls short of being a feminist film because it advances the sexist assumption that heterosexual women will give up artistic practice to find ‘true love’.”
It also poses a unique challenge for the famous Bechdel Test, where a film is judged on whether two female characters discuss something other than a man. Holly Hunter’s Ada doesn’t communicate through speech. She uses sign language with her daughter, which is often to discuss the tumultuous men around them. Their situation is in keeping with the era the film portrays. But, ultimately, you’ll have to watch it for yourself to decide on its merits!
The Piano certainly did achieve a tremendous deal for female directors. It set records left, right, and centre and claimed many firsts.
Alongside triumphing at Cannes, it also won several Oscars. It was nominated for Best Picture (losing out to Schindler’s List) and Best Director, but won Best Screenplay, Best Actress (Holly Hunter), and Best Supporting Actress (Anna Paquin).
Speaking to Time Out in mid-June 2018, Campion reminisced about the making of the film. Whilst Hunter landed the lead role, the director wanted Sigourney Weaver, who was on an industry hiatus at the time. Campion said:
“Ada, in my mind, was inspired by my friend Janet Patterson, the costume designer, who died recently. She was very tall and strong as well as kind and gentle and clear in her thinking – and stubborn, you know?! It was hard for me to go from Janet to Holly, who’s five-foot-two. Holly somehow got it into her head that this part was for her. What I didn’t realise when I first met her is that she is a really, really good piano player.”
Meanwhile, 5,000 girls auditioned for the role of Flora (whose name isn’t actually mentioned at any point in the film), Ada’s daughter. Paquin – 10 years old at the time of filming – impressed enough to land her feature film debut. She’s since forged a successful career in film and TV.
The eponymous instrument has a lofty reputation in the world of cinema, being a central component in works such as Shine (1996) and The Pianist (2002), whilst having memorable appearances in many and varied works such as Big (1988) and The Triplets of Belleville (2003).
Michael Nyman’s famous soundtrack powers away throughout Campion’s work. There are many notable compositions and it’s rightly celebrated as one of cinema’s greatest soundtracks, despite not even being nominated for an Oscar.
The Piano stands out as the instrument’s presence creates so many memorable set pieces, directly influencing the entire premise of the film, despite remaining obstinate and unemotional throughout. This effectively mirrors Ada’s often distant, introverted behaviour, to the extent you can understand why she’s so drawn to the piano.
But the film is all about drama and spectacle, playing out with Shakespearean verve. There’s the famous image of Ada and her daughter stranded with the piano on a beach. There’s the brilliant fact Hunter was talented enough to play the instrument in the film (for which she’s acknowledged in the credits, as well for being a sign language interpreter for Paquin). There’s also the landmark nature of the production, which claimed many firsts in the name of female directors – the 25th anniversary has brought all of this back to the public light at a pivotal time in Hollywood’s history.
But with all that in the backdrop of a magnificent film, what became of the piano in The Piano, the prop that lends itself so spectacularly to the equally stunning scenery of New Zealand? Campion knows exactly:
“It’s now at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. It was at my house for a while, then [producer] Jan Chapman’s office; now it’s in permanent residence in Melbourne with a little story behind it. We can’t throw it out!”