Piano, The (Jane Campion, 1993) prod. Jan Chapman; Holly Hunter, Anna Paquin, Sam Neill, Harvey Keitel, Kerry Walker, Genevieve Lemon, Tungia Baker, 121 min.
The Piano has origins of several kinds: two of its inspirations were Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and the Humphrey Bogart/Katharine Hepburn film The African Queen, directed by John Huston (1951). In writing the drafts of the screenplay, Campion also had in the back of her mind The Story of a New Zealand River by Jane Mander - although the film is not “based on the novel” as wrongly claimed by the Oxford Companion to Australian Film. Given this disparate set of intertexts, it’s not surprising that The Piano shows the characteristics of more than one genre: it’s a woman’s film, a melodrama, a romance, and it’s gothic in style. It’s even a distant relative of the road movie, although there’s no sign of any road. There are, however, two vehicles (the ship and the waka [canoe]), a long journey, two goals, an evil act or two, a loss along the way, and a gain at the end. So this is certainly a quest, the more archetypal form of which the road movie is the principal modern avatar. Helena Sharp & Garry Gillard, Australian Screen Education, 35, 2004: 109-112.
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.
It is one of those rare movies that is not just about a story, or some characters, but about a whole universe of feeling - of how people can be shut off from each other, lonely and afraid, about how help can come from unexpected sources, and about how you'll never know if you never ask. Roger Ebert.
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