The Piano | Critical Review by Richard A. Blake

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of The Piano.
This section contains 1,098 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Richard A. Blake

SOURCE: "Sound Effects," in America, Vol. 170, No. 2, January 15, 1994, p. 14.

Blake is an American educator, editor, film critic, and Roman Catholic priest. In the following review, he asserts that The Piano provides "a brilliant analysis" of human isolation and remarks on Campion's artistic development.

Traditionally, the holiday season works violence on the emotions. It offers images of happy family gatherings, but the sad reality is that many people eat Thanksgiving dinner alone in cafeterias, neither give nor receive Christmas presents and play solitaire on New Year's Eve. At a time when need for communication becomes obsessive, loneliness weighs like a Yule log on the heart. The January removal of Christmas decorations from shop windows comes as a blessed relief.

The Piano, written and directed by Jane Campion, offers a brilliant analysis of such poignant human isolation. Ada (Holly Hunter) cannot speak, Baines (Harvey Keitel) cannot read and Stewart (Sam Neill) cannot love. Despite their tragic solitude, masking its painful truth under a guise of self-sufficiency, each longs for the touch of another person. Since they cannot communicate directly, a piano mediates their relationships, thus assuming a symbolic, even mystical function throughout the film. It, rather than the human characters, is the center of the story.

Through voice-over narration, Ada, speaking with the voice of a young girl, explains that she simply stopped speaking at the age of six. This attractive young widow travels with her 9-year-old daughter Flora (Anna Paquin) from Scotland to New Zealand to marry Stewart, whom she has never met. Eager for a bride, Stewart accepts her muteness as an indication that she is "stunted." Her inability to communicate, however, becomes a sign of her own apparent inner strength. When she and Flora are dumped on the beach by the traders, she converts one of her huge hoop skirts into a tent so that she and Flora can survive until the groom arrives with his Maori porters to take her and her possessions to her new home. Her insistence on having them take her crated piano puts the new couple into immediate conflict. For him it is foolishness; for her it is life. When he leaves it on the beach, she is diminished, if only for a time.

In the mid-19th century, at this remote edge of the rain forest, European conventions have not yet taken root. Ada will have no wedding ceremony other than a photograph taken in a dripping shed with her soggy wedding gown draped loosely over her street clothes. Immediately after their wedding, Stewart announces his plans to be away for a prolonged period, and he will hear nothing more of the piano.

Baines, however, is more sympathetic. Tattooed with Maori markings on his forehead and nose, this roughhewn neighbor gradually sees the piano as an opportunity to befriend Ada. His Maori workers, men and women both, engage in ribald conversation to tease him about his need for a wife. By offering Stewart a parcel of land, Baines takes possession of the piano, moves it into his own house and arranges to take lessons from Ada. At the end of a series of lessons, one for each black key on the keyboard, the piano will revert to Ada.

Eager to regain her only form of self-expression, Ada complies, knowing quite well that Baines is more interested in her than in music. At first he is content to watch her feet and to touch her shin through a hole in her stocking as she plies the pedals. In exchange for additional black keys she allows greater liberties, as Flora, not fully comprehending, watches them from the porch. What has begun as an eerie seduction for Baines and a business proposition for Ada, has, against their better judgment and good sense, matured into romance.

The erotic theme reinforces the frustration of failed communication. Ada soon realizes that Stewart cannot respond to her sexual overtures, and Baines cannot have the woman he loves. Thus both are sexually unfulfilled. Caught in an irresolvable triangle, Ada finds herself imprisoned in her own bedroom just as clearly as she is trapped in her own muteness. Her only form of expression is her piano, with its glorious music exposing the passion that rages in her heart. As it once gave her power over Baines, in her own home it provides a sense of emotional superiority over her uncomprehending, unfeeling husband.

The piano remains the focal point of the narrative as it twists through several abrupt, shocking developments. The love story stands on its own merits dramatically, but as the triangle sorts itself out, Ada and her piano acquire a significance that reaches far beyond the romantic conflict. The film enters into a dream mode, where images penetrate the subconscious, provoke, disturb and ultimately enlighten. In one of the final scenes, for example, Ada appears with a black veil over her face, and we must wonder how much of her we have actually seen or understood. She remains a mystery to the end. Ada's story speaks of love and survival, dignity and destruction, and especially of loneliness and communication.

As writer and director, Jane Campion has reached artistic maturity in a remarkably brief time. Her script holds all the elements of tragedy and pathos of the Victorian romance, but she refuses to offer her audience one moment of easy sentimentality. In Ada she has created a character of such strength that she evokes admiration rather than pity. Holly Hunter's features have sharpened since Broadcast News (1987), and her set jaw and tight lips speak more eloquently than any dialogue. Her silent rage during her arguments with Stewart, her comic negotiations with Baines and her tender exchanges with Flora show the expressiveness of silent images created by a talented director and actor working as one.

Harvey Keitel continues to grow as an actor. Baines is part brute and part lovesick fool, but Keitel and Campion make him neither frightening nor pathetic. In their telling, his strange behavior seems plausible, even inevitable. Sam Neill creates a suitably bland Stewart, whose rage quietly builds until it explodes in a series of increasingly desperate, destructive acts. Stuart Dryburgh's photography is splendid without being showy. His presentation of the New Zealand forest is exquisite, while the dark interiors of the lantern-lit cabins provide an appropriate image of Ada's sense of confinement.

Does The Piano have the required happy ending? I'm not sure. I was certainly not elated, nor was I depressed—but I was profoundly disturbed. The memory of this film will last a long time, and that may be the true test of a work of art.

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This section contains 1,098 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Richard A. Blake
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