I must admit to having a slight weakness for ambiguous endings in films, that is, ones where the ending puts the possibility of a totally different slant on what has preceded it. I’ve also a weakness for the possibility of dead narrators, part of the appeal of Taxi Driver is that the entire prologue may be the last fantasy of a dying man, and I still wonder if Daniel Plainview ever makes it out of the desert at the beginning of There Will Be Blood. For me, The Piano falls into this slightly ambiguous world, although for once it’s brought about by the possibility of doomed romance rather than vengeance more usually associated with this trope. Are the events at the end of the film merely a construction in her mind as she lies at the bottom of the ocean, tied to her beloved piano? Whilst I admit it’s not the conventional view of the film, for me it holds weight, especially on repeat viewings.
The Piano is unusual in two regards. Firstly, it’s directed by a women – unfortunately still a relative rarity today in a male dominated industry – which may lead to the second point. Whilst it is a film about an obsession, the obsession does not fall into the usual model of a dangerous woman obsessed with a man who turns psychotic as a result (i.e. Fatal Attraction et al), but rather an obsession in reaction to a world that seeks to control her. Unlike many of the other obsessives that occupy this list, she’s not dangerous to anyone else, she’s not emotionally stilted (in fact the opposite is true, her emotions are quite plain for all to see) nor apart from society, she has just chosen a different medium through which to express herself. Of currently active male directors, perhaps only Ang Lee would do the film the same justice, although it would be a far different tale afterwards.
Key to making this all work is Holly Hunter (rightly given just about every acting award on the planet) who manages to make the mute role of Ada feel real rather than a collection of tics and affectations. It’s a performance that never falls into the trap of “playing the minority” that some actors seem to take as a means of securing awards, rather it has the feel of the doomed heroine fighting against her fate. She’s almost a throwback to the nineteenth century heroine, albeit one reflected through a century of feminism. Whilst the rest of the plaudits focussed on Anna Paquin as her daughter (good, but not as good as some child performances – especially in the context of what was to follow the next year), for me both Sam Neill & Harvey Kietel are far more interesting, each playing the role that the other would traditionally be cast in. Neill’s husband is not a bad man (although one shocking act of violence pushes him perilously close to being so), just one who doesn’t understand his emotions. Only in the under-rated Possession does he come this close to being the villain of the piece, although there it’s a far different proposition. Kietel on the other hand is fully aware of them (and constantly acts in accordance with them) and feels is more modern as a result. It’s interesting him to see him play the romantic lead, beneath the swagger of his villains there’s always been a sense of bruised vulnerability as well and here it is pushed to the fore. All of the performances are top notch, but there is no denying that it is Hunter’s show.
Campion makes the landscape (and the piano as an extension of it) the final character of the film – hostile to human encroachment, this is a place of mud, cold and rain rather than a tropical paradise, of lonely wind-swept beaches and bleak, grey skies –about as far removed as possible from the lush romantic landscape Peter Jackson would utilise (just how much geography does New Zealand contain?). The film has the look of a black & white film, de-saturated except for the occasional flash of colour, always shrouded in darkness. Only at the end is there any respite from this, although this for me is part of the reason I still wonder about the ending, is Ada imaging the warm, well lit life with Kietel’s Baines or the dark turquoise depths of the ocean? Either seems possible, although the former leads to a far more tragic fate for the heroine. Campion’s direction flits between cold, distanced observation and breathless emotion, sweeping you up into what otherwise could have been a very inaccessible film and instead infusing it all with a sense of romance. Campion never quite reached the same heights of The Piano with her latter films, but continued to have success as a producer.
The final part of the equation is Michael Nyman’s score, almost an extension of Ada’s character. It would have been easy to write the film around existing pieces, but instead Nyman uses the score not to underlie the emotion of the film but as an alternative language for Ada. Unusually, most of the music is also being heard by the characters as well, it’s not background music it’s music that is in the background. Occasionally it expands outwards to include a full orchestra, but often it’s a single piano, often haunting the proceedings or the only sound present. It’s become a staple of adverts and TV since, but it’s important to realise how unusual this sounded for a soundtrack back in the early nineties.
Once again The Piano is one of those films that I find easier to admire rather than like, occasionally it feels a little cold, a little too distant. But the ambiguity of that ending makes it the film I remember from that year more than any other, even if I can never say that watching it is a pleasant experience. Nervously recommended, although I cannot recommend the score enough.