Our rating: 2 out of 5
reviewed by Charity Bishop
This film is beautifully photographed and has an absolutely amazing musical score. It features lovely performances, including Anna Paquin in her first film, and subsequently, the role that earned her a Best Actress Academy Award at age eleven. Unfortunately, for all of that, The Piano hit all the wrong notes where this reviewer was concerned.
Desiring to leave England and the scandal of being a single, unmarried mother behind, Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter) agrees to marry a plantation owner (Sam Neil) in the wilds of New Zealand. She has not spoken a word since she was six years old, and communicates through sign language, writing notes, and the voice of her impetuous daughter Flora (Paquin). Her husband Alistair Steward fails to realize how important music is to her, choosing to transport all of her other things home and leaving her beloved piano boxed up on the beach. As the days pass, she becomes increasingly more frustrated and upset, remaining cold and distant from Stewart. This attracts the attention of his foreman, George Baines (Harvey Keitel). Hoping to spend more time with Ada, he trades Stewart three acres of property for the piano and asks her to instruct him.
Ada soon comes to understand that he doesn't want instruction so much as liberties, and will trade her the piano in exchange for various "favors." The resulting bond between them sets in motion a horrific series of events that stretch the limits of imagination and become a little preposterous in their own right. I have never known a sexually harassed woman to welcome the attentions of her abuser, much less fall in love with him. So much of the film is exquisitely photographed that its equal horrors seem out of place, particularly for a female character as she lets the lens caress the contours of male bodies. It's very disconcerting, and completely ruins what I thought was going to be a thought-provoking and enthralling film. I alternated in the second half between covering half the screen and using the skip forward option on my remote, but saw enough to state with certainty that there is an abhorrent amount of nudity involved, both male and female frontals; as well as extended various backsides on several occasions.
Baines' favors are minor at first (asking her to lift her skirt while she plays, so he can see her stockings, touching her arms and neck) and then progress to more intimate standards. Ada seems put off by him at first, then does an insensible turn-around, running into his arms the minute she has her piano back. There are at least two sexual scenes, as well as a jarring several minutes in the woods when Steward tries to rape her. There's also some innuendo revolving around masculinity among the natives, tribal nudity, and Flora is chastised for unknowingly participating in suggestive native games. There's also a scene of such jarring implied violence that it turned my stomach, in which an enraged character drags another to a chopping block and proceeds to slice off a finger.
While there is something enthralling in Hunter's performance of a "dumb" girl, I found it very difficult to like the characters. Her lover is a lecherous blackmailer and her husband is downright cruel. It certainly doesn't have any worthwhile depictions of men and the romance feels strained and forced because of it. I am all for a good tragedy, but this one passed good taste with abhorrent sexuality and gore, and rapidly changed from tolerable to dismal. It was promising in the beginning, but left me disappointed. The only good thing about it is the score, most particularly the original composition "The Heart Asks Pleasure First" by Nyman. Do yourself a favor by downloading the song, and let the film be.