Written and Directed by Jane Campion
Starring Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel, Sam Neill, Anna Paquin
Reviewed by Noel Hester
Who says that Australia doesn't have aspirations to be a regional colonial power? First, they plundered the New Zealand economy, now they are stealing our cultural icons. We are beginning to understand how the Irish feel. And, what is the next step in this process?
Merely a week before this film won the Palme d'Or at Cannes New Zealanders living in Australia were the subject of a highly xenophobic media barrage. Taking their cue from the government and treasury prior to Paul Keating's visit to New Zealand we were branded, yet again, as dole bludgers, parasites, a burden on the poor old Aussie taxpayer, etc, etc. (Even in an area where this country is acknowledged to be world class, i.e., racism, there seems to be a total lack of imagination.) A week later and we are all Sydney-based Australasians! Thank you Jane Campion.
While not quite up to its publicity hype, this is none the less a very good movie. It is set in the wild and beautiful South Island of New Zealand during the Pakeha colonisation of the 19th century. The story goes something like this: A widow (Holly Hunter), who is mute arrives from Scotland with her young daughter for an arranged marriage to a landowner (Sam Neill) who is busy expropriating his piece of heaven.
Ada's prized possession is a piano that she has transported with her from Scotland. As she is has no voice the piano is a part of her being, her means of communication and expression. Neil's land owner, no paragon of sensitivity as the local Maori can testify, abandons the piano on the rugged beach where they've landed because of the inconvenience of moving it. The marriage is off to a flying start.
Neill's neighbour (Harvey Keitel) takes possession of the piano and strikes a deal with Ada to trade it back in return for lessons and sexual favours. An unlikely but plausible love story unfolds.
The Piano is an imaginative look at a slice of life as it may have been during the colonisation in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Campion captures well the enormous cultural clash between Maori and Pakeha. The Maori's sensitivity towards, and spiritual connection with, the land is contrasted with the greed and destructiveness of the settler.
The environs of Neill's homestead are a charred, smouldering desolation as he beats back the claustrophobia of the bush and recreates his origins. The colonial lawnmower mentality — what value has a mature, thousand-year-old kauri forest against a nice English lawn?
Similarly the prudishness of that puritanical 19th century English society contrasts against the at-ease sexuality of the Maori. A hole in a stocking is enough to have Harvey Keitel salivating while the Maori unselfconsciously exchange sexual banter without any sense or
One of the strengths of the film like many New Zealand films before it is the awesome landscapes and the almost tangible moods that they create. The wild, rugged west coast beaches and the dense, damp, dominating bush are stunning to the eye and cleverly used to establish the physical and cultural contexts of the story.
The acting is excellent. Sam Neill once said that New Zealand tends to produce big, strong silent-types who don't make good actors. He contradicts himself here and plays the part of a big, strong, emotionally crippled New Zealand male very well. Holly Hunter is brilliant without her twangy American accent. Both Harvey Keitel and Anna Paquin (as Hunter's daughter) excel. All the Maori actors contribute wit, humour and warmth.
The Piano is well crafted and recreates, with some sensitivity and honesty, the colonial context for its story. It is a very good film which is well worth seeing. The Australian contribution is difficult to discern. Maybe the "best boy" or the "grip" came from Ulladulla.