Thursday, March 18, 2021

Oscar Film Journal: The Piano (1993)

Welcome to another Oscar Film Journal entry, here at!

Today we travel back to that grand ol' decade known as the 90s, for a film so Oscar-baity it could very well be the poster child for what general audiences think of overly artsy art films.  I'm talking about Jane Campion's 1993 opus The Piano, starring Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel, Anna Paquin, and Sam Neill.  Set in the 1800s, The Piano is about a mute woman, Ada, whose father sells her into marriage, transplanting her and her young daughter Flora from Scotland to New Zealand so she can be the wife of a settler.  Played by Sam Neill, the husband Alisdair is cold and unsympathetic, expecting Ada will eventually come around to loving him.  But aside from sign language, Ada's only true means of communication is through her piano playing, and despite having transported her instrument all the way from Scotland, the husband tells her he has no room for it.  Instead his neighbor George (Harvey Keitel) acquires it in exchange for some land, and asks Alisdair that Ada visit him once a day to teach him to play it.  What follows from George and Ada's association is an awkward, unlikely romance, wherein George offers to sell the piano back to her one key at a time for daily moments of affection.  But after a few weeks he realizes he has genuine romantic feelings for her and can't continue the arrangement.  Upon being cut off from George, Ada in turn realizes she also has feelings for him.  The rest of the story plays out as a love triangle of sorts, with Alisdair continually trying to connect with Ada to no avail, as Ada's daughter begins throwing wrenches in her relationship with George.
To read the synopsis of this film and to see isolated visuals, one would tend to dismiss it as pretentious tripe, artsy for the sake of being artsy, but it's executed quite skillfully and pretty brilliantly acted.  Hunter won a well-deserved Oscar for a purely physical performance; watch how much she's able to communicate with just her eyes.  Keitel's character is romantically inept (as I imagine most unmarried settlers were) but ultimately tender and sympathetic.  Anna Paquin, all of ten years old at the time this was filmed, is precocious and versatile, conveying a young girl who's more vindictive than she knows.  And Sam Neill rides the line between unfeeling, entitled husband and a poor sap sincerely longing for affection even though he doesn't know how to earn it.

Perhaps more striking are the visuals; desolate beaches and forests are bathed in cold, austere blues, greens and browns, while the interiors are all yellowy warmth.  The settlers' crude houses are surrounded by rain-soaked walls of vegetation and mud.  The setting is about as unwelcoming as can be imagined, lending to the sense of displacement the two female characters feel in their new home.  

Another character in and of itself is Michael Nyman's haunting piano-heavy score; its strains carry a distinctly modern, emotive feel, belying the repressed era of the story.  Ada's freedom is truly expressed in her playing.  

Overall I enjoyed The Piano probably more than expected given its conduciveness to parody (the SNL "Washing Machine" sketch for example); I feel like it's one of those movies where if you wait too long to see it you can't get past the pop cultural impact.  But it's subtly directed, visually stunning, and quite well acted.  Nothing to sneeze at, certainly.

I give the film *** out of ****.

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