Like a brilliant musical composition created by a master, Jane Campion's 'The Piano' slowly crescendos to a tumultuous outpouring of emotions which overwhelm the soul. Each scene flows into the next with an unusual pace and tempo — various moving snapshots pieced together to make some sort of order, suggestive of how our own memories work. They're highly expressive pictures with a sometimes impenetrable poignancy that also welcome a deeper analysis, like the movement of each note in an eloquent sonata, saying little, but revealing everything. Ultimately, this is Campion's magnum opus, and it's a visual masterpiece.
It's a fitting style and comment for a film about the importance of music giving value to one's existence, especially for one whose entire life has been immersed in that artistic endeavor. For reasons unknown, even to herself, Ada McGrath, as magnificently portrayed by Holly Hunter, has not spoken a word since childhood, other than through her mind's voice. Here, Hunter gives one of her finest performances of a woman with so much to say but incapable of verbalizing them. Everything is understood entirely in her eyes and facial expressions, and we can see her angered frustration with the cold, uncaring world around her. It is 19th Century New Zealand, and everyone's rather indifferent to her condition.
Her only forms of communication — which is to say, her only means of letting others know her disapproval and objections — is sign language, a paper pad shaped like a locket around her neck, and her daughter, Flora (Anna Paquin). As with Hunter, the very young Paquin is a marvelous surprise, serving as a little, fiery mouthpiece to Hunter's physical agitations and dissatisfactions. Like the music analogy functioning as the film's overall motif, the child actress, too, is tasked with conveying an inner emotional growth that suddenly explodes towards the end. And she pulls double duty as a precocious little kid unknowingly causing mischief and tragically caught in the histrionics of the adult world.
Both women are thrust into an untamed wilderness where the British imperial class make attempts at keeping up Victorian appearances. The result of an arranged marriage, Ada's new husband (Sam Neill) comes across as a good, hard-working man but tensely awkward around his wife, unsure of his role as affectionate companion and sympathetic partner. This becomes immediately clear when they meet for the first time on a cold beach with stormy waves rolling behind them. He hadn't brought enough people to carry Ada's things, so he makes her leave behind her only respite from the world: a piano.
This is one of several moments in which Campion's original narrative implicitly pronounces the protagonist's need for the instrument. It is her voice, the one beyond simple approvals and disagreements on a piece of paper or through hand signs. And although he doesn't state it, Ada's new husband plainly has no need or ear for it. One man, however, does enjoy the sound of her music — her husband's neighbor, Baines (Harvey Keitel), who's gone native and prefers socializing with the Maori people, where woman seem equally vocal as men. He not only encourages her playing but also helps to discover the passionate response music elicits, removing the layers of Ada's societal trappings and revealing her true self.
With excellent camerawork by Stuart Dryburgh, Campion carefully designs beautifully evocative images that linger long after the film's end. A period melodrama at its core, 'The Piano' transcends like a series of haunting photos and frames expressing Ada's vulnerability and emotional anguish. A piano stands alone on a bitterly frigid beach still trapped inside its shipping crate, while large, violent ocean waves roar and crash against sand. An unwelcomed gaze peeks through two planks of wood, watching as two lovers give into their passions. It's a remarkable motion picture, lyrically told through the music — or better yet, the mind's voice — of the film's silent protagonist.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Lionsgate Home Entertainment brings Jane Campion's 'The Piano' to Blu-ray on a Region A locked, BD25 disc and housed inside a blue eco-cutout keepcase. At startup, the disc starts with a series of trailers in the studio's catalog, and then fills the screen with a normal main menu, full-motion clips and music.
Lionsgate delivers another disappointing Blu-ray release, offering a1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode obviously made from an aging print.
The picture generally falls on the soft side with only a few pockets of sharp clarity, most of which come from close-ups or exterior shots. Foliage and the stitching on clothing can be plain and clear, but overall fine definition is substandard.
The rest of the transfer retains much of the photography's original look with greatly toned-downs contrast levels, but the grain structure fluctuates noticeably between natural and distractingly thick, almost noisy. The deliberate palette is heavily drained, making most facial complexions very pale and lifeless, but certain scenes maintain good rendering of the primaries and the interior of homes show lots of reddish warmth. Blacks are excessive and oppressively harsh, so much so that small details within shadows are engulfed in darkness and completely disappear. Much of this comes from creative choice, but some of it seems the result of the source used.
The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack offers a somewhat better presentation in its original stereo design.
Dialogue is strong in the center of the screen and takes priority over the rest of the mix, even during several intimate, whispered conversations. Imaging is fairly expansive and engaging with convincing off-screen effects filling the front channels with good balance. Dynamic range is cleanly rendered and stable, giving Michael Nyman's original score splendid, rich clarity and fidelity. The low-end is on the lighter side, but weighty enough to give the score some depth and the few scenes with lighting some clout.
The film doesn't come with lots of action, but the music takes excellent command of the front soundstage, making the lossless track easy to enjoy.
This Blu-ray edition of 'The Piano' is basically a barebones release with only the film's original theatrical preview and a collection of trailers for other Lionsgate titles.
A period melodrama at its core, Jane Campion's 'The Piano' transcends expectations with an evocative and lyrical motion picture about hidden passions awakened by music. Featuring extraordinary performances by Holly Hunter and a very young Anna Paquin, the film follows a woman's struggle to regain her voice as represented by a battle over her piano and told almost as if a series of haunting images. The Blu-ray sadly appears as if taken an aged print and in need of restoration, but the audio offers a slightly better presentation. The package is a barebones release, but recommended for the beautiful film alone. Give it a rent.