“I am quite the town freak,” states the protagonist near the end of Jane Campion’s 1993 picture The Piano. It’s a film that looks at societal norms and how they can suffocate women, particularly one that doesn’t use the default form of communication, and a stirring tale of love in all of its many complications. The film is now 25 years old, and Studiocanal is reissuing it with a brand new 4K restoration on UHD Blu-ray.
The Piano is about a mute woman named Ada (Holly Hunter) and her daughter Flora (Anna Paquin) who are sold to Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill) who is a frontiersman in New Zealand. They don’t get off to the best of starts and this is further escalated when he refuses to take her prized piano to his home from the beach where they land. However, Alisdair’s neighbour George (Harvey Keitel) is mesmerised by her playing after taking them to the beach, and takes the piano to his home, with Ada agreeing to give him lessons. As she begins to play, he falls in love with her and asks her to let him “do things” while she plays, something that blossoms into something larger and mutual. However, Alisdair catches them in the act, and his frustration at not only her love for George but also her indifference towards him threatens to destroy all of them.
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The Piano is a deft treatise on love and possession and eroticism and the need for a woman to break out of her societal chains to be who she wants to be, who she needs to be. Holly Hunter is astonishing as Ada, who is instantly treated by Alisdair as someone damaged; as he sees her he says she is “stunted” and acts like she’s the Victorian equivalent of a catfish. He also refuses to take her piano, which as we learn is her voice – Ada is electively mute, she speaks through music, something Alisdair doesn’t appreciate but George does.
It’s also the way she’s treated by everyone, as someone expected to be a prim and proper lady who conforms to society’s view of what she should be, and Ada is very much not that person. She constantly wears the traditional period clothing with the bonnet and the huge skirt with the cage inside, obviously symbolic of her position and her need for privacy and her own forms of self-expression, but we see the outfit dragged in the water of the sea and the mud of the Maori land Alasdair has built on. With the piano, and eventually George, her happiness is obvious, especially when she lets down her long hair from the bonnet so it flows out like its ocean waves.
Also brilliant is Anna Paquin as Flora, who acts as an interpreter for Ada but is not the usual cute child you might not expect, and has her own agency, especially when it comes to Ada and her relationship with George. The casting is impeccable; Keitel is passionate yet awkward, tender even though he’s not sure how to be. We discover he’s illiterate, so he suffers a similar social barrier to Ada, but they’re just languages that they’re not necessarily interested in, at least when they’re being themselves. Sam Neill is callous from the first time we see him, and his portrayal of a man slowly moving over the edge is brilliant and subtle, and eventually terrifying.
Then there’s Michael Nyman’s perfect musical score, which itself also helps vocalise Ada’s spirit. Nyman’s compositions are absolutely haunting, and along with Stuart Dryburgh’s gothic cinematography, add extra depth to the piece. The film is like a buffet; there’s so much to dig through that you feel like you’ll be coming back to it again and again.
Studiocanal has licenced the 4K transfer in this set from The Criterion Collection, who themselves released it in the States in January. It looks and sounds gorgeous, and the experience of watching the film like this instead of a taped-off TV VHS is just something else. There are some crossovers in features from the Criterion set too, including an interview with director Campion and producer Jan Chapman looking at the film 25 years on, and interviews with Dryburgh, production designer Andrew McAlpine, and Maori advisor Waihoroi Shortland. Unfortunately, it’s not as stacked as the Criterion, which also featured an audio commentary and a hefty interview with Nyman about the score.
The Piano is a masterpiece. It’s an intense tale that is beautifully told through great performances and music, and this new restoration is stunning. An essential purchase.
The Piano is out now on 4K UHD from Studiocanal.