There is passion in all of us. Some of us struggle all our lives to express this vivid personal sense. Others find companions who have that mutual understanding of their shared emotions, overcoming any obsticale that seems to prevent this fusion. This is just one of the many themes discussed in Jane Campion's The Piano. Ada, our beautifully articulate, but silent heroine is the closest to feeling this fulfillment. She, consciously or subconsciously, chooses to ignore society's conventional way of communication and, instead, decides to speak through her piano. No one seems to understand Ada's cry until she and her daughter Flora are reluctantly sent off by Ada's father to live with their arranged husband/father, Stewart, the epitome of the 19th century colonial nature rapist, in the rainforests of New Zealand. Ironically, Stewart is not the man who hears Ada's cry. It is Baines, an English born Maori cultured naturalist who aids Stewart in his negotiations with the Maori people, the local natives who own most of this region of the rainforest. Because, at the time, there was a strong emphasis on loyalty to one's parents and Catholicism, social standards trap her rampant emotions for Baines. Ada, being the most passionate character in the text, rebells against these constricting religous standards and allows her emotions to run wildly and freely. This strong movement away from the constrictions of the Catholic religion in the 19th century is expressed very vividly in the opening scene of The Piano.
In the opening scene of The Piano, Campion gives us a very obstract image that we later learn to be of Ada covering her eyes with her fingers. This we'll get to later. To illustrate the idea above, we must skip the first five or six shots. The seventh and longest shot is of Ada roaming about in what seems to be a storage room for porcelain pots and tapestries. She moves along about the room with a look of wonder and curiosity. It seems as though she in search of something moving her head from side to side. The camera pans to the right slowly maintaining her central position in the frame until a rather ridged and cold wooden cross enters the frame. The camera allows the cross to take the center of the frame, pushing Ada to the left of it. While this is happening, Ada's voice discusses Stewart's opinion on her muteness (I started the quote from the middle of the previous shot to maintian its coherence).
My husband said my muteness does not bother him. He writes - God loves stoned creatures, so why not he? We are good he has God's patience. For silence affects everyone in the end.
As Ada finishes the last sentence, she pauses, as does the camera, and looks directly away from the cross, off into an opposite space in the room. She continues to move back into the center of the frame, she looks at the wooden cross for a split second, and her voice continues, "The strange thing is I don't think myself silent." The camera tilts downward to reveal Ada's instrument of passion. "That is because of my piano." She then sits down and allows her emotions run freely through her fingertips, creating a sweet and wild collection of melodic sounds. While Ada continues to express her euphonious passions, the camera continues to pan to the right slowly. A shadowed figure appears through the window looking out into the next hallway. The shadowed figure is followed untill its womanly counterpart appears in the door, staring at Ada. This long take ends and we get a shot of Ada who abruptly stops playing. In this frame we see Ada with a rather angered look, and a viberent redcarpert glowing from the mise-en-scene highly contrasting Ada's gloomishly gray European garb.
Campion and Director of Photography Stuart Dryburgh packed this long shot with wonderful imagery within the frame. As Ada wanders through the storage room aimlessly, her narration discusses Christianity and God's patience (not the far greater qualities of God). The camera stops and swaps the central positioning of Ada with the ridge cross. The image of this cross itself suggest a cold and almost ridged constricting quality. The cross symbolizes the cold and contricting qualities of religion and forshadows the obsticles that will block Ada's wild passion in the future. As Ada continues her search, she finds what she's looking for in the room, her piano, her ultimate symbol of passion. Ada chooses free unrestricted passion over the cold ridgelines of Catholicism. Campion gives this shot the longest duration in this serise of shots to emphasis its importance to the overall idea of the film. This next shot is of Ada angered because she was rudely interupted. This framing reiterates the idea of Ada choosing to follow her heart rather than her religion because of the abundance of red brightness. This color motif is used in the mise-en-scene when Flora is passionately exaggerating her real father and mother's wedding and it is also used in Baines's bedroom where Ada and Baines display their overbearing emotions toward each other. Strong emotions are attached to this color from the begining of the film, and are very prevalent throughout the film. Campion and Dryburgh exhibit wonderful talent in mise-en-scene manipulation to reinforce the importance of unrestricted passion in these two shots.
This idea of passion is so complex and multifaceted Campion could have easliy settled with it alone, but that would be too easy. The idea of human's relationship with nature is discussed in great depth visually; it is rarely discussed literally. Campion has Ada embody many different belief syestems; she had Ada represent the idea of religous non-conformity and, now, Ada also embodies this idea "Mother Nature." Throughout the film, references are made to Ada as a free spirit which has many Native American conotiaions. At one point, Stewart refers to Ada as a bird. After Stewart learns that Ada is being disloyal to him, Stewart traps Ada and Flora in his home, barring the windows and doors. At one point, he is so enfuriatied, he cuts one of her fingers of with an axe. He justifies this by saying "I only meant to clip your wings." He only meant to tame her. This is the mentality of the typicaly 19th century colonial European. Because Ada embodies this natural sense and Stewart embodies this colonial sense, the literal symbolism tell the reader that the European colonialists try to control nature, rather than live with it plutonically. There are wonderfully vivid scenes where Stewart attempts to rape Ada in the midst of the rainforest, among nature and her surrondings, but unfortunately those are other scenes.
The opening scene sets up Ada as an embodiment of nature very creatively. As the opening credits fade, we are given a very abstract shot, blurred colors and no distinct images. Campion then cut s to a shot of Ada covering her eyes with her hands as if she doesn't want to see what in front of hear. We then cut back to the abstract image again, and then we see the image that causes her to put her hands over her eyes. It's an image of two men and a horse. One man is trying to ride the stubborn horse while the other pulls at her to make her move, as if the man is attempting to control her. Campion then cut back to Ada who is resting on a tree trunk. The camera pulls up and Ada walks out of the frame. Campion now outlines the frame with the trunk of the tree and a long thick branch extending from the top. Ada walks in the tree framed frame and the shot ends. By juxtoposing the shot of Ada with her hand over her eyes and the shot of the two men attempting to control the horse, Campion shows the viewer that Ada is distressed and uncomfortable viewing any display with this nature. But she really heightens this idea by having her majestically stroll down the tree framed frame, making her embody all that is natural in the world. Campion and Dryburgh set up Ada's natural embodiment through juxtiposition of shots and framing with in a frame at the begining of the film in order to add double meanings to preceding scene later in the film.
Campion and Dryburgh elaborate on humans relationship with nature by advocating a harmonious balance between nature and humankind, as the Maori people practice. This main differnece is what set the Maori people apart from the Europeans. The Maori people strive to maintain a certain balance with nature, they treat her with respect, i.e. not polluting or not killing trees relentlessly, and she returns the favor; they harvest crop and are given an abundance of water. The colonial European is the complete opposite. As embodied by Stewart, scenes later in the film constantly show Stewart cutting trees down and using nature to most effectively. In the later parts of the opening scene, Campion and Drybrugh show us visuals that express this idea.
As the film continues, Ada and Flora arrive in New Zealand by boat. Throughout this entire scene, images of the rushing water dominate the frame. The Ada and Flora are carried of the little boat and the roaring ocean surronds them and their fellow travelers. In order to reemphasize humans insignificance against nature, Campion pulls the frame back further to show a giagantic rock of a mountain and this small tiny humans unpacking their luggage. The imagery emphasizes humans arrogance towards nature and makes the viewer realize their own insignificance in comparison. As the film continues, Campion and Drybrugh advocate the Maori attitude towards nature by the organization of the mise-en-scene in certain shots. As described previously, Campion shot the Europeans as insignificant beings with respect to nature. When Stewart and Baines come to pick up Ada and Flora, they bring along the Maori people to help with the baggage. As the Maori people walk along the beach, the Maoris take up exactly half the frame and the subduded ocean and the tranquil clouds take up the other half, giving both elements equal respect in the frame. By giving the Maori people and nature equal amounts of space in the frame, Campion exhibts the benifits of the Maori's balance with nature. Because the Europeans treat nature as a subordinate, nature returns the favor.
Jane Campions, The Piano
- Length: 2260 words (6.5 double-spaced pages)
- Rating: Excellent
In the spring of 1993, a film was released to the world that would end up changing the way many people perceived and appreciated films, especially those made internationally. It would be delivered from New Zealand’s most famous female filmmaker. Jane Campion, the director whom was previously known for her films, Peel-an Exercise in Discipline, and Sweetie, would achieve even higher acclaim for her masterpiece to date, The Piano.
The Piano portrays the story of a mute, unwed Irish woman in late 1800s New Zealand, arranged into a marriage with a colonial New Zealand settler. The main character, Ada, expresses herself with the keys of her piano. She finds herself falling in love with Baines, one of the natives of her new home, after he persuades her to give him piano lessons in exchange for her beloved musical instrument. Ada is very emotionally distant with her new husband, and as he discovers the romance between her and his intense neighbor, he becomes competitively jealous. In a pit of rage, Ada’s husband severs one of her precious fingers and eventually gives up on the failed marriage. In the end of the film, Ada and her young daughter, Flora, set off from the island with Baines to start a new life, without her once loved piano.
The characters in this film hardly come shy of delivering performances that make for amazing cinema. The actors in The Piano include Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel, Anna Paquin, and Sam Neill. Holly Hunter’s character, Ada, delivered a fantastic performance on camera. Although many average moviegoers and few critics may discard Hunter’s role as achievement since she didn’t have to memorize any lines, the majority of film critics worldwide certainly disagreed, as Holly Hunter ended up taking home the Palme d’Or and an Academy Award for best actress soon after the films release. Hunter’s films previous to The Piano included films Raising Arizona, and a film by acclaimed Simpson’s producer, James L. Brooks, entitled Broadcast News (Davis 1.) Campion noted that as she was deciding whom to cast as her admirable Ada, that Hunter was not her imaginative image of the character at all:
Holly was my image of Ada at all. But, in fact, I was very much saved from myself by Holly. Originally, I had an almost clichéd, romantic view of this tall, statuesque, black-haired, black-eyed beauty. In many ways, she wasn’t a very real human being, and when meeting Holly I was not very willing to see her as Ada.
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Piano Jane Campion New Home New Zealand New Life Main Character Critics Flora Award Actress
Holly was completely the opposite to my understanding of how Ada should be. However, I liked Holly very much and I started to open up to the idea of using her because she was so interested and willing to do an audition (Wexmen 118)
Perhaps the most amazing performance came from the young actress that was not even acknowledged on the cover of The Piano. This, of course, was the adorable and talented young actress, Anna Paquin. Paquin was a Canadian actress that gave a performance that would have been amazing at any age. Jane Campion told Lynden Barber, “With a little girl like Anna, she’s just got great instincts; I don’t know where it comes from. She’s just an example of how some people have that acting spirit”. What might have been most amazing thing about Paquin’s performance, other than the performance itself, is the fact that this was her first film that she ever acted in (Pageen 1 IMDB). Anna Paquin took home an Oscar for “best actress in a supporting role” at the 1994 Academy Awards.
Harvey Keitel, who played William Baines in the film, had been better known from previous movie roles such as tough guys in Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino films, until Jane Campion stumbled upon him. Like Holly Hunter, Keitel was an American, and his character transition into the New Zealand setting was very accurate and remarkably believable when watching The Piano.
The only New Zealand native that is a main character in the film is Sam Neill. Although Neill was born in Northern Ireland, he was raised by army parents, and quickly resettled in the South Island of New Zealand. An experienced director and editor, Neill was also a skillful actor who had acted in such movies as The Rainbow Warrior, and Jurassic Park. Sam Neill, Anna Paquin, Harvey Keitel, and Holly Hunter all worked very well together in The Piano to fulfill a masterpiece for Campion.
The cinematography itself is astonishing. The Piano incorporates many beautifully captivating images, all on gorgeous 35mm film. In the opening scene, the viewer is welcomed with subdued colors; unsaturated and cold. The colors themselves are very reminiscent to director Tim Burton’s 1999 horror film, Sleepy Hollow. The coldness of these colors allow one to be more taken in by the characters, as the blandness and lack of actual color allows the viewer to see the mood of the scene. For instance, the touches of blue and grey in the opening scene give the sense of coldness and disparity. The cold look of the film also makes Ada appear lonely and unhappy, as she would in response to her prearranged marriage to an unknown New Zealand man. At other points in the film the color is warm; using more earthy tones of soil and sky to metaphorically display the times when Ada is away from her husband, Stewart. World renowned film critic, Rodger Ebert, comments about the use of tinting and color in the cinematography of the film:
Stuart Dryburgh's cinematography is not simply suited to the story, but enhances it. Look at his cold grays and browns as he paints the desolate coast, and then the warm interiors that glow when they are finally needed. And if you are oddly affected by a key shot just before the end (I will not reveal it), reflect on his strategy of shooting and printing it, not in real time, but by filming at quarter-time and then printing each frame four times, so that the movement takes on a fated, dreamlike quality (Ebert 2)
Of course, the color of the film is only one aspect of the brilliant cinematography orchestrated by Stuart Dryburgh. As Ebert points out, Dryburgh increases the vivid resolution of his film by shooting at one-quarter time, rather than standard real-time printing. When the piano itself is seen on the beach while Ada is looking down at it from the height of a cliff, the cinematography, once again, sets the sense of loneliness. As Ada gazes at her beloved piano, the camera zooms into the boarded instrument resting on the shoreline of the New Zealand beach, creeping so close to the waves that it almost becomes plausible that it could be swept away. As the camera hones in on the piano, Ada’s scarf occasionally flutters into the foreground, unfocused, and battering in the wind. Dryburgh explains that, “The camera’s viewpoint…is that of a witness directing the viewer’s attention in a very intimate way. Sometimes we go places where the camera can’t really go…it wouldn’t be a Jane Campion film without some witness in the framing” (Margolis 8)
The framing of the film is also another aspect that Campion and Dryburgh pulled off miraculously. In many of the shots, such as the piano on the beach, the piano is offset in the frame. Since the anamorphic widescreen format of the film is shot and framed at 1.85:1 aspect ratio, this effect is very dramatic. In the profession of photography, there is what has been coined as a “two-thirds ratio”, in that one should never fully center an object in the frame unless it is crucial to the effect or message of the photograph. Dryburgh does this many times in the film.
However, whenever Ada is looking at her piano, and the camera is in her point of view, the piano seems to be consistently centered within the shot. This may be an emphasis of Ada’s love for her piano. Possibly the piano is centered in the frame because it is also centered in Ada’s mind. After all, the piano is her means of speaking and communicating something other than her silence. As many music teachers will tell their students, “find your voice”, and metaphorically Ada is finding her voice, when ever she is finding her piano from across a room or across the beach.
The transitions in the film are also superbly unique. One transition takes the viewer from seeing Stewart in the New Zealand jungle in a cold blue tint, to watching him strut across the virgin sands of the beach in a shot that seems to last half a minute. The shot is dollied, angled from the sand up, perhaps used to emphasize the symbolic journey that he took to welcome Ada and her young daughter to his new land. Another great transition is one that displays continuity. This is a transition from when Ada’s finger is severed and Stewart orders Flora to bring the finger to Baines. As Flora runs from her mother, collapsed knee high in the mud, the film simply cuts to Flora in the house of Baines, crying hysterically.
Not only does this simple transition show the elimination of Flora’s trip, but once again, Dryburgh uses extreme color change to show the difference between the two settings. While Baines’ home is warm and comforting, Stewart’s yard is filled with cold blues that give the setting a very unappealing, yet beautiful nature. Author Harriet Margolis explains the relevance of this technique to the integration of the film: “Campion’s use of the blasted setting for Stewart’s house, in pointed contrast to Baine’s more ecologically integrated living quarters, plays on a tradition of using the landscape symbolic as well as straightforwardly representational purposes” (Margolis 17-18)
The topic of femininity is an abundant one in The Piano. As many praised the film for its artistic exploration of female sensibility and longing, few criticized the film of, “aestheticising female masochism and presenting a universalizing view of femininity at the expense of New Zealand’s indigenous population” (Hopgood 1). However, there does not seem to be any reason to feel this way towards the film. Hunter’s character, Ada, is an Irish native; Baines is an American, and the passion between them theoretically should not have any reason to disgrace the population of New Zealand. However, the film did rise many reviews of how femininity positively attributed the film, Margolis states that “The film was hailed as a masterpiece because it drove home the point that women are not adjuncts to their husbands and because it showed the heroine getting what she wanted – true love, as an equal” (Margolis 27)
Another aspect of criticism that surrounded The Piano, was over the portrayal of Southern New Zealand’s indigenous people; the Maori. New Zealanders did not completely welcome the portrayal of the Maori in the film, as author Harriet Margolis explains:
Less positively received has been the film’s representation of the Maori. It is indeed easy to make the case that Campion has represented the Maori in stereotypical ways, even through the film’s music. Traditionally, Aotearoa New Zealand has developed a reputation for good, bicultural race relations, and officially it is a bicultural country. Historically, however, there have been difficulties, and the 1980s saw a major renascence of Maori cultural and political presence. Campion, having left the country in the 1970s, was largely out of touch with many of these developments pertinent to issues that influence or even underlie the story she has to tell (Margolis 19-20).
Some may argue that this accusation is unfair, as the story did not take place in present day New Zealand to begin with. The 1800s would have been a place harboring of many racist thoughts and practices, and as in all bicultural civilizations of the 1800s, would have areas that withheld a foundry of bigotry and poor race relations. After all, this was a time of slavery and a time when white settlers were, and had been, invading countries already settled by natives. Campion, however, refutes accusation; claiming that she was educated first-hand in the ways of the Maori, as she tells Vincent Ostria in a 1993 interview:
(The Maori) helped me with the Maori part of the screenplay. They thought that my first description of the Maori in the screenplay was bad. They spoke frankly about it and offered to fix it. I worked with Waihoroi Shorthand who wrote the Maori dialogues. He wanted me to represent the Maori universe in a convincing way. In his mind, it was the occasion to make them better known. But I explained to him that I didn’t want to approach the question from a political angle. I wanted to find the reality and authenticity of Maori behavior, of their way of speaking, without trying to impose a political point of view (Wexman 130-131)
With all of the ingredients in one place, Jane Campion was able to create a film that critics and moviegoers around the world seemed to love. Rodger Ebert called it “One of the most enchanting, startlingly original love stories ever filmed” (Ebert 1), while Newsweek’s David Ansen complemented Campion as “One of the greatest filmmakers around” (Ansen 1). Neither Rodger Ebert, or David Ansen were far off. As Jane Campion took home over eighteen awards for The Piano, including two Academy Awards and two AFIs, she must have felt satisfied that she had completed her life’s masterpiece. The Piano: a wonderful story that not only changed the perception of cinema in New Zealand, but of cinema worldwide.