During the nineteenth century, Ada (Holly Hunter) was a Scottish woman who had become mute by choice in childhood, and now had an illegitimate child of her own, Flora (Anna Paquin). For this reason, her father sent them both off to the other side of the world, to New Zealand, a decision she had no say in, to be married off to a frontiersman named Alistair (Sam Neill). There was one condition of hers that had to be met, however, and that was her piano should accompany her, so it was crated up and all three arrived on a beach far away from any supposed civilisation, where a snag was hit almost immediately: Alistair didn't want to bring the instrument back to his modest abode.
1993 was definitely the year of The Piano, as writer and director Jane Campion's film scooped up awards left, right and centre (Oscars, Cannes, BAFTAs, and so forth) and it became the most fashionable production to see and have an opinion on of its year. This was helped greatly by Michael Nyman's score, which may not have sounded very authentic but became a signifier of middle class taste in music much as Richard Clayderman before it and The Buena Vista Social Club would after it, selling bucketloads of CDs. However, when they finally got to see the work itself, the praise was by no means universal, and it quickly turned into the most divisive art film of the decade as well.
Whereas when Steven Spielberg won his Oscars for Schindler's List the year The Piano was up for its own, with that film, whatever you thought of how effective it was, it would be difficult to argue against the worth of its sincere message, but what those who took against Campion found was her film's message was rather more difficult to pin down, and they didn't like that, accusing it of reactionary feminism as if this was still the nineteen-seventies (or indeed, the twenty-tens) when the male characters, specifically Alistair, came off so badly. Even Harvey Keitel's nice white man gone native Baines is revealed as a paedophile late on in a manner so casual that many missed it.
But what those naysayers did not appreciate was The Piano was less a faithful recreation of a past incident, and more an impressionistic series of incidents that summed up Campion's conflicted feelings about sex between men and women, and all the complications that arose, so naturally it was going to make more sense as a collection of dreamlike, sometimes nightmarish sequences than it was something for pedants wanting hard and fast facts and rules to be adhered to. All very well, yet there was a point to the criticism in that the film did not shield itself too well from audiences noticing how absurd it was, especially compared to other costume dramas that were the in-thing for sophisticates and would-be sophisticates in the nineties, and it remained to be seen how well Campion had directed her cast.
When Hunter started her narration, there can't have been many Scots whose hearts did not sink with the fear she was going to use that dreadful accent for the whole movie. Fortunately, she remained silent till the last minute or two in that regard, but Paquin had no such excuses, a truly terrible vocal performance so distracting that you almost glossed over Flora's complete lack of consistency in the way she bounces from Ada to Alistair in her affections, one minute a little prude, the other traumatised for her actions that lead to her mother's punishment (one supposes seeing your mum having a shag can do that to a girl). Keitel wasn't much better, again labouring under a laughable accent and muted to the point of wooden in a manner that was unrecognisable from his greater roles as Baines swaps goes on the piano (which never needs tuning) for sex with Ada. Fans of New Zealand landscapes would be let down to as most of this was shot in the pissing rain and mud, leaving the impression of how hard it is to live with a weirdo. Wilfully awkward was the overall behaviour here, from the director and her characters. But it was unlike anything else, an achievement of sorts.
[The extras on Studio Canal's well-presented 25th Anniversary Blu-ray are an audio commentary and two featurettes, one newly created for the anniversary.]