Jane Campion’s The Piano has a beautiful Stuart Dryburgh-photographed opening taking many viewers back—very quickly back, what with the pounding waves and swooning imagery—to David Lean’s Ryans Daughter. And Lean’s gigantic mouse of a soaper stays with us throughout: even if unconsciously, Campion has lifted almost whole cloth the adulterous theme, the trapped isolation, the village customs & gossip, the looniness. She goes several up on Lean: Ada, the heroine played by Holly Hunter, is a voluntary mute with a Judas as daughter, played by a future Glenda Jackson named Anna Paquin, and the wild romantic of Harvey Keitel, with the dirtiest of fingers and tattoos on his forehead and nose, is right out of a cloistered fancy inspired by Victorian sexual repression. We know what’s coming: Keitel’s penis awakens the vocal cords. I can’t be fair to Holly Hunter. I go bananas just thinking about her and have ever since Broadcast News, in which she was a zit on the ass of TV journalism. Only once has she delivered a performance worthy of the praise she’s received: her spot-on bimbo in The Positively True Adventures of the Texas Cheerleader Murdering Mom. (When she’s telling us why she has to have her daughter’s rival’s mother killed, she’s a phenomenal pop Texas nightmare at its most comically, horrifyingly real.) But put her into something with a little depth and she’s all truncation—all starts, spurts, abrupt stops. The human parts of her seem missing when she starts to speak. Maybe this is why she got the Oscar for The Piano, because she didn’t have much to say. (Even her narration sounds like it’s coming from someone else.) Admitting confusion, I didn’t understand Anna Paquin’s role. Is she meant to be the betrayer she appears to be? When she’s reciting her stories to a gawking elder villager, one feels a queasy ominousness about her, yet there’s no psycho linkage between those early fears and her relationship with her mother or new father, Sam Neill. Even more disturbing is her own background indicates she wouldn’t have much allegiance to a stepfather, so why did she opt to be a turncoat? There’s a Peyton Place voyeurism here—everyone’s peeping, including the little girl. Was she so turned on to what she saw that she thought StepDaddy should have a peak, too? Keitel’s in danger of becoming the hulky Greta Scacchi of actors—ready to strip for any part. Neill sips tea from the most beautiful cup & saucer in movies. There have been those claiming The Piano might’ve been inspired by a 1983 New Zealand movie by Geoff Murphy called Utu; and had Campion given us a laborious trek of the piano through the wilderness, there’d be justification for recalling Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo. But Ryans Daughter seems the progenitor. Like a variant of the old Tabu commercial, The Piano promises the smell of passion but cheats when opened: Hunter has about as much sexual attraction as a fire ant. Unforgivable of Campion to rob us of the satisfaction of what seemed Hunter’s watery fate.


Text COPYRIGHT © 2007 RALPH BENNER  All Rights Reserved.