I can distinctly remember viewing Angel At My Table and realizing, as it unfolded in front of me, that it would prove to be one of the most influential and important pieces of cinema I would ever see. From its highly feminist narrative to the absolutely captivating cinematography, it made me fully aware of Jane Campion and kept it that way even though it would be now some four years later before I would catch up with another one of her films. Of course, when I approached The Piano I had already been made aware of its critical acclaim, far before knowing that Jane Campion was the director, but for a multitude of reasons had never managed to actually catch up with it. To describe the film as cinematic, or mesmerizing only captures the very visual obvious elements of the film, which are expressive and key to the overall theme of the film, yet not entirely is brilliance. Within The Piano, viewers are offered a set of expert performances by a range of actors, whether they be the then well-established Harvey Keitel or the then up and coming (now quite successful) Anna Paquin. It is also a very elaborate and multifaceted story that manages to be expansive and introspective, without sacrificing linear structure, a dangerous act, when attempting to play to the palettes of viewers who are often not versed enough filmically to follow a filmmaker outside of the traditional stylings which constitute big budget filmmaking. Fortunately, Jane Campion clearly has no concern for making a narrative simple and accessible, but still possess a certain aesthetic frame of mind that seems transcendent of personal tastes and preconceived expectations, something her films embrace both within her choices, as well as the manner with which her characters occupy the narrative space. To say the film centers on Holly Hunter's character is an absolute understatement, she absolutely rules and always occupies it, with her stoic silence and piercing stare, it is a film about one woman struggling to assure her voice in a world that she is literally trapped within and expected to act subordinately to a male figurehead with less than respectable desires.
The narrative centers on Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter) a woman who, along with her daughter Flora (Anna Paquin) have found themselves transported to a small island off the coast of New Zealand to be wed to a wealthy landowner named Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neil). Ada, however, has been a mute for quite some time, occurring after the death of her husband after both him and her were stuck by lightning. The only sort of expression Ada appears to still possess exists within her ability to masterfully play the piano, which is simply dumped onto the beach of the island along with all her other valuable possessions. It is during this arrival that Ada meets her husband-to-be, as well as his handyman/translator/land-proprieter George Baines (Harvey Keitel) whose tattooed visage and muscled physique serve as a sharp contrast to the sleek and a bit slithery Alisdair. Realizing that the piano is far to heavy to move upon arrival, Alisdair leaves it on the beach, much to the frustration of Ada who sees it as an extension of herself, begging George to take her to it the following day. It is during this trip that Ada simply spends the time playing the piano, at which point George finds himself growing fond of Ada, given her ability to play and the beauty that exudes from her as a result. Realizing that Alisdair simply desires to get the heavy instrument off his hands, George strikes a deal for land in return for the piano, as well as Ada's providing of lessons. Ignorant to George's ulterior motives, Alisdair agrees quickly assuming he has earned the best deal. What follows is a game of bartering between George and Ada where in Ada must trade trip to George's residence for the keys of her piano. This of course expands from simply being her playing to touches, and eventually to intercourse, eventually leading to the two falling for each other. This realization enrages Alisdair who cuts off one of Ada's fingers in response, yet when he realizes that she will forever find herself attracted to George and ignore him he gives up and the two are allowed to leave the island. It is during this trip that Ada demands that the piano be thrown off the boat, at which point her getting caught up in the rope leads to her almost drowning, yet she escapes at the last moment, and her George and Flora are able to start a new life. Although the narrative voice reminds viewers that the memory of her piano always sticks with Ada.
There are many things to consider as minor commentaries within this film, whether it be the clear statement on property, colonization and invasion of space as it relates to Alisdair and George's overtaking of aboriginal land for their own economic advances, even if George clearly has a respect for the people, his appropriation of their culture only speaks to such a degree about his own engagement in capitalist based oppression as a result. One could even read this as a sort of masculine competition, a sporting challenge, in which a woman's body is objectified as a result. In both cases, however, Champion is clearly mocking and satirizing such issues, instead; it is absolutely and clearly a commentary on the feminine obtaining a voice. Much like Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust, the film possesses a narrative completely detached from the temporal space of the film. Whether it be the unborn child of Daughters, or in the case of The Piano, Ada's voice which she has lost much earlier in the narrative, before the film begins. Yet she still attempts to navigate the space of the film as though she were still very much present, and, to be fair, she is present. She uses, firstly, her daughter as a means to navigate the space, teaching Flora to deliver statements with a directness and frankness as to be taken seriously, not only to assure her respect when she gets older, but to ground the fact that she is speaking for two people. Of course, the more important manner with which Ada obtains a voice, is through her piano, its strings representing her vocal cords as she speaks her frustration, her sexuality and her love, in some instances all at once. The soundtrack for the film serves as a beautiful non-diagetic, and at times diagetic doubling of this notion. Yet by the end of the film both outlets as replacements for her voice fail and she is left with the realization that she must possess her own voice again, the closing scenes suggesting that she will do so with much practice, always remembering that a failure to do so led to her very near death.
Key Scene: The staging of Bluebeard is a throwaway scene of sorts, but it is this great metaphor of failed escapism that works on a larger context within the film.
This is an artwork, film at its highest potential, owning it should go without saying.