10 Jan 2023

Fifty Greatest Films: The Piano

From Widescreen, 1:24 pm on 10 January 2023

There is a new Sight & Sound critics' survey of the greatest films of all time and Dan Slevin is going through the top 50 one at a time. Equal 50th is Aotearoa’s The Piano.

Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin in a still from Jane Campion's film The Piano.

Photo: IMDb

Back in 2017 I had the tremendous idea that I should survey the Sight & Sound magazine critics’ picks for the top 50 films of all time here at Widescreen, introducing the lesser-known titles, reminding us of the better known ones and pointing out how – in this disrupted age of streaming and digital rentals and the disappearing home video store – how a curious viewer might actually watch the films that Sight & Sound magazine has decided are “canon”.

I got as far as the equal #36 (Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles which has become the surprise new number one) before realising that at my current rate the magazine would produce its 2022 list before I finished 2012. (The surveys of critics and directors for two different lists are done every ten years.)

In December last year, the 2022 list was announced on schedule and there was much online (and on air) discussion of the changes that had occurred in the intervening ten years. My project, I believe, is still important and now I have ten more years to complete it. (But rather than meander through the list, 50 films now seems to demand a tighter schedule – one film a week should get me to the end just before Christmas.)

A close-up of Holly Hunter as Ada in Jane Campion's film The Piano.

Holly Hunter won an Oscar as Ada in Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993). Photo: StudioCanal

I won’t deny that the appearance of Jane Campion’s The Piano at equal 50th position also spurred me back into action. It is the first time that a film made in Aotearoa has placed in the Top 100 and that seems like a good place to start.

In their wisdom, the BFI/Sight & Sound have the country of origin for The Piano shared between Australia and France because that’s where the money came from. In  the early 1990s, the New Zealand Film Commission was unlikely to have had the wherewithal to contribute to a local production on this scale and the tax breaks that would launch many New Zealand film in the 80s and then again in the 2000s had been unwound by fiscally conservative governments. Campion’s previous production, An Angel at My Table, had been funded by the Commission but only in partnership with TVNZ and the ABC in Australia as it was intended primarily for television broadcast.

Anyway, Wikipedia and most other authorities recognise the contribution of New Zealand to this film about New Zealand even if the BFI don’t.

The Piano has similar preoccupations to Campion’s previous work – namely the impossibility for a woman to live a fully realised and uncompromised life in a world dominated by men. By setting her story in colonial New Zealand, she makes the bargains or contingencies that women had to make to survive very clear – and tragic.

Holly Hunter plays Ada, a mute Scottish single mother with a nine-year-old daughter, forced into a marriage of convenience halfway around the world. Her new husband is Alisdair (Sam Neill), one of those ‘second sons’ forced to make his way in the colonies when there is nothing for him to inherit back home. He busies himself trading blankets and muskets for land and wondering whether this strange, “stunted” woman is worth all the trouble he is going to.

Her great love – apart from daughter Flora (Anna Paquin) – is the piano she has had shipped over with her and that is left on the beach to ruin. Mysterious ex-whaler Baines (Harvey Keitel) spots an angle for himself and arranges it to be transported through the bush to his house.

Holly Hunter and Harvey Keitel in a still from Jane Campion's film The Piano.

Photo: StudioCanal

And so begins an erotically charged melodrama in which the piano – and access to it – becomes currency between Ada and the two men who are competing for her affections. How much will she have to sacrifice in order to maintain the independent inner life that is so important to her?

As I recall, The Piano was the first time that mainstream international film culture took New Zealand seriously. Up to that point, we had made our own films with a little bit of our own money or Hollywood would come calling looking for scenery or tax breaks, but this was the first time that New Zealand crews and creatives had been trusted to tell a story about us with a big international budget.

Of course, as cultural advisor on the film, Te Waihoroi Shortland, points out in his generous interview in the new Criterion edition extras, this story could have been told anywhere and at any time. Colonial New Zealand was a backdrop and the Māori component wasn’t much more than scenery – “we knew this wasn’t our story” he says, which is good because despite his and Selwyn Muru’s best efforts it is the portrayal of Māori that is the weakest link.

In a still image from Jane Campion's The Piano, Ada and Flora are waiting on the beach to be transported to Nelson by Māori waka.

Photo: StudioCanal

But back in those days, we would take what we could get and the fact that Campion became the first woman to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes and then go on to win Best Original Screenplay at the 1994 Oscars (along with Hunter and the enchanting Anna Paquin) gave New Zealand film a boost that it sorely needed. A few months later Once Were Warriors premiered at Cannes and New Zealand film was well and truly on its way.

The Piano is available for rental on DVD from Aro St (for as long as that collection remains intact) and Alice in Videoland. It’s also available as a digital rental from Apple, Google, Arovision, Academy On Demand, etc. but by far the best way to watch The Piano currently is the newly remastered Criterion UHD version which is available on import at various prices. The disc features a new 4K remaster with DolbyVision High Dynamic Range colour and a new 5.1 soundtrack from the original 24-track master. You also a get a high definition Blu-ray in the package. The Piano is not available on the NZ Film Commission’s On Demand site.

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