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The Piano: Still a feminist masterpiece.

Updated on January 10, 2012

Jane Campion's film The Piano was released in 1993 to huge critical acclaim. She was the first female director to ever win the Palme d'Or at Cannes, and the second woman of four ever to have won best director at the Academy Awards. Set in the mid-19th century, the film is about a woman, Ada McGrath (played by Holly Hunter) who is has an arranged marriage to colonial frontiersman, Alister Stewart (Sam Neil). The voice-over tells us that Ada has not spoken a word since she was six, and must use sign-language or her piano to express herself. The film opens with her arriving in New Zealand with her daughter Flora, being helped off the boat by rough seamen amidst crashing waves, and waiting along with her worldly possessions, including a large piano, for the arrival of her husband whom she has not yet met. Their first meeting is a cold and awkward one, strained further by his refusal to carry her piano up through the jungle, despite having enough men to do so. Another of the men on the island is George Baines, a retired sailor who has settled there and adopted a number of Maori customs. He watches Ada with interest, including her fury at having to leave the piano behind, and at the complete absence of affection between the newly-weds. One day Ada begs him to take herself and Flora to visit the piano. Baines seeing how much she wants it, agrees and then decides to purchase the piano for himself on the grounds that he wants to learn how to play it. Baines has the piano brought to his home and Alister insists that Ada teach Baines. In a desperation to be with her beloved piano, she agrees, but soon discovers that Baines doesn't want to learn but to watch her play. Baines is aroused by Ada's piano- playing which speaks to him of the depth of passion she cannot express. He offers to 'sell back' the piano in exchange for she allowing him to touch her. She agrees very reluctantly but soon begins to find herself enjoying it. After a few visits these 'lessons' become more and more erotically charged until a full consummation of the relationship takes place. Discovering the affair, Alister boards Ada up in her house and forbids her to see Baines. Baines returns the piano but still he and Ada are miserable in their separation. Ada sends Baines a written declaration of her love on a piano key but Alister gets this first and in a fury, drags Ada outside to the wood-block and cuts off her finger with an axe. He then sends her finger to Baines with a warning that there will be more cut off if Baines sees her again. As Ada begins to recover, Alister understands that it can never be a 'marriage' because there is no understanding and so he has it dissolved and her sent home with all her things, along with Baines and Flora. On the way home the piano begins to sink the boat. Ada decides to let it be thrown overboard, but as drops into the sea she allows herself to be pulled in after it. We see her being pulled down under the water, passive and expressionless at first before having a change of heart and fighting her way to the surface again. The last scene sees her happy, back at home in Scotland with Baines helping her learn to speak, and playing the piano once more, now with a tin finger.

Still able to shock and inspire.

Seeing the film The Piano for the second time since its release eighteen years ago, was a different experience from the first. I was that much younger when I first saw it; a teenager full of naïve optimism. I distinctly remember a male member of the audience in front of me say as the credits rolled, " well, that was...mostly unpleasant" and thinking, yeah, that about sums it up. We laughed at its grimness on the way home; the Gothic melodrama of a woman being trapped by a man seeming tiresomely pessimistic and repetitive to my callow mind. But at the same time I was gripped by its imagery and mystery. A solitary piano left on the beach while waves threaten relentlessly to carry it away. The impenetrable landscape of dark weeds and mud. Holly Hunter's cello-like torso. The rigid hair and clothing of the time. The constant, and near tangible dampness of skin and hair and muddy clothes. The idea of being unable to speak and of music being a therapy. The imperfectly rugged bulk of Harvey Keitel's body, also set a standard in my young mind for manliness and wild strength which has remained with me ever since. He resembled Renaissance statues of brawling Greeks with wild hair, sinewy arms and well-worn knees.

Seeing the film again, now older, more well-read, more traveled, more knowing of men and now children a reality, I was able to see the beautiful, perfectly symphonic allegory play to its natural conclusion. The images had not changed. They were just as I remembered them, but this time I felt I could read them a little better. Here are some of my thoughts.

Ada is mute; the obvious allegory being a woman made to fit into a masculine environment and having no voice there. She is like an imprisoned animal, only capable of rudimentary communication via her daughter, an imperfect translator, using signs and symbols.

Ada's clothing: Black, multi-layered, rigid and confining, represents the confinement of her sexuality. She is literally clothed in her repression. Her corset tied tightly around her torso both restricts her movement and disguises her femininity. The sharp line of the corset literally and metaphorically obscures the natural softness beneath. When Baines encourages her to remove first her tunic, then her over-skirt, he is simultaneously encouraging her to remove the layers of tension, hostility and mistrust that she has been carrying. In a perfect representation of her status, the bone and fabric structure we see beneath her skirts resembles a bird cage.

The piano on the beach: The piano, the instrument of Ada's self-expression is dismissed and left behind on a beach by her husband, where it daily threatens to be washed away forever, never to be heard by the New World. Ada is trapped in a world where her husband can only understand the language of his world, not hers. Alister is also trapped and frustrated by his inability to awaken Ada's affection. Interestingly, the image of a piano is the first and only suggestion of refined culture within the story. It seems to say that it is only when a woman is accepted on her own terms into a male-dominated environment, the beginnings of civilisation and cohesiveness are possible.

Baines' affiliation with the natives:Unlike Alister, who still carries the repressed, Victorian Protestantism of the Old World, Baines feels an affiliation with the mystery and abandon of the Maori natives. His Maori facial tattoos indicate the connection he has with a past not yet shaken up or divided by the rules and regulations of civilisation. He embraces an instinctive existence, barely talking at all and like an animal, he listens and watches. When Ada first plays the piano, however, Baines conveys the impression of a man enraptured by a distant memory. His wilderness has been interrupted by a familiar sound and a sentiment of the world he has chosen to forget. After this, he becomes entranced by the passion he can hear through her piano playing. Her wordless language mirrors his own disjointed culture. The more he listens to her play, the more he understands. And from within this reawakened understanding comes the revelation that he too wishes, craves even, to be understood. Their mutual passion then springs from the primordial desire of every human being to make a mutual connection; to be heard, to be empathised with, to trust and to love.

The symbolism of hands: Hands are a crucial symbol in this film. Where shoulders and thighs, chests and bums tend to suggest power and force: (things attributed to masculinity,) the image of hands suggests nurture, giving, appreciation and other things associated with motherhood and femininity. Ada speaks with her hands, she plays the piano with her hands, she shows her husband sensuality with her hands. We see Baines' hands on Ada's shoulders and on the curve of her waist; a reflection of his desire to both reveal and empower her. Alister's punishment of Ada is to cripple one of her hands by cutting off a finger. For a while afterwards, it is as if part of Ada has died and It seems inevitable then that she will drown. But then she doesn't. She disentangles herself from the very thing that once gave her a voice with the realisation that she can be happy now without it.

These are just some thoughts that lovers of the film might share. More thoughts on the subject will be most welcome.


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    • lizzieBoo profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from England

      Trish, yes it does very much have that about it. Good comparison.

    • Trish_M profile image

      Tricia Mason 

      7 years ago from The English Midlands

      Hi :)

      Yes, a beautifully-written hub!

      I remember 'The Piano' being produced, but have never seen it. Maybe I will get the chance soon. I shall find it particularly interesting after reading this essay.

      Quote: '... a woman made to fit into a masculine environment and having no voice there ..'

      This reminded me of Charlotte Bronte and 'Jane Eyre'.

    • lizzieBoo profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from England

      Thanks very much Hugh.

    • Hugh Williamson profile image

      Hugh Williamson 

      7 years ago from Northeast USA

      I admit that I thought this Hub was about the piano as a musical instrument (which is an interest of mine). As I read your piece, I became enamored with the story and I'll now make an effort to experience it for myself. I doubt that the movie will be any better than this critique, however.

      Great writing.

    • lizzieBoo profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from England

      Hello Cogerson. Thanks for your encouraging comments. I haven't heard of Danny Peary, I'll have to look him up.


    • lizzieBoo profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from England

      Hello thelonghaul,

      Thanks for your response. Coincidentally I am re-reading Wollstonecraft's memoirs right now. I'm a big fan too so I'm interested that you brought it up. You are right that Feminist is not the only category this film fits into, but within the context of 'Feminist' it is a very fine piece. While I was writing, I could see ideas branching off into many other directions but I decided to stay focused within this narrow margin.

      I would imagine that Campion was very influenced by the Romantic poets, but the choice of costume, such as the Hoop dress, sets it very much in the mid-Victorian period. Women's fashion in the Enlightenment period was based on Classical costume. This may have been an oversight by Campion, or perhaps she just chose to make use of artistic license and mix the periods up to best effect.

      I can see the parallel with the likes of Frankenstein, however: The unjust idea of human rights being subject to class or sex. Good thoughts.

    • Cogerson profile image


      7 years ago from Virginia

      Great detail in your review. Danny Peary(author of the Cult Movies series) is one of my favorite authors that writes about movies, your hub reminded me of his work.....great job.....voted way up.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      I wouldn't call The Piano 'feminist'. That is too narrow a definition.

      Jane Campion has set her tale in the Enlightenment period which was sweeping across Europe and the Colonies during the latter half of the 18th century onwards.

      Alienation and disenfranchisement were its main theme, championed by Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Godwin,(later Shelley) Percy B Shelley and Lord Byron.

      My guess is that Jane Campion had read the philosophical poetry & writings of Mary Shelley, who exemplified the injustices of that age with her allegorical story of 'Frankenstein'. The Piano has a similar theme of cruel injustice and brutality, but Ada, against all the odds, triumphs in the end. Shelley would have understood the meaning of the story exactly, and Campion paid her that supreme compliment in the character of Ada and her piano.

    • lizzieBoo profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from England

      feenix! Gosh, thank you for such lovely comments. I was thinking of saying more. Perhaps I'll write part 2. We seem to have a lot in common.

    • feenix profile image


      7 years ago

      lizzieBoo, I hated to see this hub end. It is one of the most beautiful works I have ever read on this site. And I hung on every word of your insights into the characters and the overall plot. Your "interpretation" of the story is even more beautiful than the story itself. This post is actually a work of art and I loved reading it and I love it.


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