A mail-order bride, Ada, and her young daughter arrive on the shores of New Zealand with only a few possessions except a large piano, her most treasured item. Her new husband, an unwelcoming cold landowner, can't understand her love for the piano so leaves it on the beach. Baines, her husbands assistant takes in the piano and asks for lessons in return, however they soon begin a passionate affair.
Splitting 1993's Palm D'Or honours with Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine, Jane Campion's fourth feature arrived on these shores a full five months after Cannes with "chick movie" and "arthouse" stamped all over it in big, bold letters, complete with an oddball period milieu (New Zealand during the very early days of European colonisation), daring casting (Holly Hunter as a mute Scottish mail-order bride; Harvey Keitel as a Scottish-or-is-it-Irish? settler-turned-honorary Maori) and bizarre subject matter (woman loves piano, woman loses piano, woman wins piano back with sexual favours). Don't let that scare you off, though. Precious as it sounds — and threatens to be at times — this is not just Merchant-Ivory with a Kiwi twist, but a strikingly unusual and arresting, sumptuous and transcendent parable of adultery and awakening passion featuring a knockout central performance from Cannes' Best Actress Holly Hunter. Dumped on a bleak New Zealand beach front with her nine-year-old daughter Flora (Anna Paquin) and her treasured piano, Ada (Hunter), a fiercely expressive woman unable to articulate her emotions except in sign language through her daughter, but who reveals more with her eyes and piano-playing than words ever could, gets off to a rocky start with the husband she's never met, a stifling, sexually inhibited pioneer (Neill, hapless drip yet again) who refuses to haul her beloved baby grand up to his remote rainforest dwelling. It falls instead into the hands of instantly smitten land owner Baines (a profanity-free Keitel, cast against type as a sort of tattooed Valentino, but adeptly pulling it off), who strikes a deal with Ada to earn her piano back via piano lessons in his cabin. The lessons, however, are merely the cover for an elaborate and frankly handled courtship that evolves in progressively erotic stages from one-sided lust into a passionate affair. As the diminutive Ada switches her passion from the inanimate to the animate, disfigures her piano to send a message to her lover, is betrayed by her daughter and suffers brutal retribution at the hands of her humiliated husband, Campion's beautifully crafted tale unravels in perpetually muddy, rain-swept environs in bold, tactile strokes, with occasional flashes of humour and an almost otherworldly quality. Delicate, sensitive and literate, this admittedly has a selective appeal, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a more serenely sensual or visually ethereal film. And, belatedly, Campion signs off with an unexpectedly uplifting twist, thumbing her nose at cinema's granite-bound lexicon of tragic, doomed heroines.
Strong performances and hauntingly beautiful scenery and score elevate Campion's restrained drama.