Arriving in the midst of a new era of feminism and a heightened awareness how the film industry treats women, the rerelease of Jane Campion’s 1993 film The Piano feels well-timed. The film, a Victorian romance set in colonial New Zealand, has a strong vision which is carried out through beautiful, playful, yet haunting cinematography, an excellent story structure and fabulous performances. Though some elements of the film have come under scrutiny and are worth re-examining in today’s cultural climate, The Piano has a lot to teach about how to make a superb, Palme D’or and Oscar-winning film.
The Piano is an excellent example of a film that walks the line between art-house and mainstream. It hits the conventional story beats of any romance: the meet-cute where the couple don’t like each other, the steady growth of the relationship, followed by the separation, and dramatic resolution. Campion’s masterstroke is in her inclusion of the character Flora (Anna Paquin), Ada’s (Holly Hunter) daughter. Not only does Flora’s presence allude to Ada’s past sexual indiscretions (it is implied she is a bastard) and therefore flesh out Ada’s character, she is also the catalyst for the story. With Flora, Campion created slowly snowballing causality; as Ada spends more time with Baines (Harvey Keitel), Flora is forced to start interacting with other people – one of whom is her new ‘Papa’ Stuart (Sam Neill) – and find her own life in this new land. The clear causal momentum and familiar plot beats make the film engaging for a mainstream audience; you don’t have to work to interpret why Campion is showing what she is showing.
But from this familiar base, Campion builds the stylised world of an arthouse film and weaves a more nuanced tone which lingers long after the film is over. One of Campion’s main inspirations is Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Campion’s story is similar: a gothic melodrama set in a wild and mystical natural context that isolates its characters. Yorkshire Moors are substituted for the gnarled and dense native bush of colonial New Zealand.
Nature’s power feels ever present in The Piano; each scene permeated by mud, rain and the ocean. Even in the bush scenes, Campion and cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh give the sense of being underwater by using a blue filter. Nature challenges the Victorian characters trying to uphold their European ways of life in this new land. Stuart wears a top hat splattered with mud, Ada sports an impractical bustle and long skirt as she goes about her new life. It is as though nature is encouraging the characters to adapt, and let go of useless social conventions.
And of course, ultimately, showing how absurd and unsustainable the Victorian way of life was, particularly in relation to romance, is what The Piano is about. One way or another, all three main characters are forced to confront what Victorian norms have forced them to become. They make Stuart a monster, Baines a predator, and put Ada in a boat to the other side of the world to marry a man she has never met. Ada has to make a decision: does she love a man who is not her husband? Baines has to realise that by coercing Ada he is never going to get the relationship he desires. Even Stuart has to realise that despite ‘clipping her wings’, Ada is not going to be the wife he wanted, and that he must let her go.
Although Stuart is not redeemed in this moment, by giving him this revelation, Campion grounds her villain: he is capable of making a pragmatic decision, even though that means letting Ada go. This refusal to let Stuart be a one-dimensional antagonist is another strength of the film. Campion has said that, initially, Stuart was just that, but his character didn’t work in the film. Instead, Campion chose to cast Neill because ‘he’s a very handsome man’ and let him descend into violence – at the outset of the film, Stuart is a less imposing figure, eager to please his new wife and give her and Flora space to settle in their new home. In 2018, you might recognise Stuart as a self-described ‘nice guy’, who considers his bad behaviour beyond his control, provoked by a disrespectful woman.
Another major way in which Campion challenges the Victorian lifestyle is the presence of a whole other culture, that of the Maori. Though the Maori characters are not the main focus of the story, they provide a foil for the main characters. Where Flora plays on the beach with a layer or two of petticoat, for instance, the Maori children swim naked. In other scenes the contrast is more pronounced. When Stuart and Ada first meet, a Maori man stands behind Stuart and parodies his movements. This scene in particular shows also how the incidences of humour in the film expertly undercut the melodrama, just enough to keep it from seeming over-indulgent.
Though the inclusion of Maori characters and their use of Te Reo (literally ‘the language’ but practically the shortened form of ‘Te Reo Maori’ and how the language is referred to in New Zealand) is undoubtedly important, Campion’s representation of the Maori culture has not gone without criticism, and in the current climate where indigenous voices are being heard more loudly, the rerelease of The Piano could provoke more discussion of this issue. Critics highlight the absence in The Piano of any mention of the New Zealand Land Wars, and feel that the film presents too much of a ‘Carefree Maori’ stereotype. One particularly egregious misstep is a scene in which a Maori man mistakes shadow puppetry for reality.
The other element of The Piano which might cause controversy in the current zeitgeist is the coercion on which Ada and Baines’ relationship is based. Like other texts popular among women–Wuthering Heights being one famous example and (dare I mention it) E. L James’ Fifty Shades of Grey being another – The Piano indulges in certain sexual fantasies that are potentially unhealthy, but nevertheless persistent in society. In this way, it is important to examine texts that portrays these fantasies, especially when they have come from women and are popular with women. Moreover, many films that are loved by women are dismissed for that reason; they are ‘girly’ because they are about romance in some form.
After 25 years, The Piano is still absolutely worthy of attention – both as a stunning work deserving of its elevated place, and as a chance to examine the nuances of female texts and the ongoing challenge of white filmmakers finding appropriate and respectful ways to include people of colour in their work. There is a lot to like and learn from this film in everything down to its mise-en-scene and structure, but you can also sit back and enjoy a gripping, well-told story.
If you are interested in seeing Maori stories on screen, the New Zealand Film Commission website is a great resource. Otherwise, here are a few recommendations:
- Waru (2017)
- The Dark Horse (2014)
- Boy (2010)
- Whale Rider (2002)
- Utu (1983)