PARIS — Jane Campion’s third feature is a visually sumptuous and tactile tale of adultery set during the early European colonization of New Zealand. With Harvey Keitel daringly cast in the role of a passionately romantic lover, and Holly Hunter a knockout as a woman physically unable to articulate her feelings, the elements are in place for Miramax to reap strong arthouse coin, with crossover business also indicated. Cannes Film Festival, where Campion’s early shorts and first feature, “Sweetie,” were launched, will provide this special film with a strong international send-off.
The basic plot, about an unhappily married woman who takes a lover, is a familiar one, but the setting and the character details are most unusual in Campion’s bold screenplay and treatment. As in the director’s earlier films, the central figure is a woman who suffers from some kind of disability but overcomes this against all the odds.
This time, the sickness isn’t mental, as it was in “Sweetie” and “An Angel at My Table,” but physical: Ada McGrath (Hunter) is mute. She can hear, and can communicate in sign language through her young daughter, Fiona (Ana Paquin), but she can’t talk.
Apart from her child, with whom she has a close and loving relationship, Ada’s most treasured possession is her piano.
Tale begins in Scotland, with Ada’s voice heard on the soundtrack (“The voice you hear is my mind’s voice”) explaining that she’s about to marry a man she’s never met, a pioneer settler in far-off New Zealand who believes that God loves dumb creatures and so should he.
However, when Ada and Fiona arrive on a stormy, bleak shore on the other side of the world, Stewart (Sam Neill) isn’t there to meet them and they’re forced to spend a chilly night in a makeshift tent, their possessions, including the precious piano, scattered around them. The marriage gets off to a bad start when Stewart finally arrives and refuses to transport the piano to his settlement. Later, he allows another settler, George Baines (Keitel), to install the piano in the latter’s home.
Baines, who has “gone native” (he lives with a Maori woman, can speak the language and even has tattooed his face), is instantly attracted to the diminutive, crinolined Ada, and offers to return the piano to her — if she gives him some lessons.
These “lessons” become stages in an increasingly erotic courtship that ends in a passionate affair, shown in frank and boldly handled sequences with the lovers spied upon, first by Fiona, then by Stewart.
At this point, another characteristic Campion element is introduced: Ada “mutilates” her piano by sending a message to Baines that she attaches to one of the white keys; but her daughter betrays her secret, and Stewart takes gruesomely calculated revenge on his wife.
Campion unfolds this striking story with bold strokes, including flashes of unexpected humor (as in a brief cartoon insert when Fiona explains that her father, a composer, was literally struck by lightning).
Stuart Dryburgh’s fine camerawork draws maximum pictorial splendor from the chilly, rainswept settlement in which the reluctant bride finds herself, as well as from bleakly beautiful beach sequences.
Michael Nyman provides a robust score, and the credits note that Holly Hunter played solo piano and also acted as piano coach on the production. The actress gives one of her finest performances, a brave portrayal of a woman who can speak only through her child or her piano.
As the lover, Keitel acquits himself with brilliance, while Sam Neill, in the less showy role of the undemonstrative husband, is also fine. Young Ana Paquin brings plenty of complexity to the role of Fiona, and Kerry Walker and Genevieve Lemon are tops in supporting roles.
Great care was obviously taken on authentic details, and it pays off in a totally convincing milieu. Production design by Andrew McAlpine and costumes by Janet Patterson are major plus factors.
“The Piano” confirms Campion as a major talent, an uncompromising filmmaker with a very personal and specific vision.