Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Piano Blu-ray Review

Nominated for eight Academy Awards and collecting three in 1993 – Best Actress for Holly Hunter (TV’s “Saving Grace”), Best Supporting Actress for Anna Paquin (HBO’s “True Blood”) and Best Original Screenplay for Jane Campion - The Piano makes its debut on Blu-ray Disc. The film features a superior cast, led by Hunter, including Harvey Keitel (Reservoir Dogs) and Sam Neill (Jurassic Park). Called “one of the most enchanting, startling original love stories ever filmed” (Chicago Sun Times), the Blu-ray premiere will please film buffs everywhere.  The Piano arouses passions and vengeful jealousies when Ada, a young mute woman (Hunter), is desired by two men – her husband by an arranged marriage (Neill) and the husband’s darkly intense neighbor (Keitel). Violent emotions erupt, but only one man understands that Ada’s heart can only be won through her beloved piano.

Film (2 out of 5 stars)

Every once in awhile a film comes along where I find myself on the opposite side of the fence than the majority of the public and critics.  The Piano is one of those films.  Although the film won a ton of awards including Best Actress for Holly Hunter, Best Supporting Actress for Anna Paquin, and a Best Original Screenplay for Jane Campion, but it doesn't work for me.  I recognize that it's filled with good performances and some of the New Zealand footage looks amazing, but the story itself and its unlikable characters leaves me cold.

The Piano tells the story of a mentally ill woman named Ada McGarth (Holly Hunter) who chose to stop talking when she was six years old for no reason.  Ada also has an illegitimate daughter Flora (Anna Paquin) that was the product of an illicit relationship between Ada and a teacher that she thought she could control with her mind who later "became frightened and stopped listening," and left her.  Not that Ada really noticed since all she seems to care about is playing her piano for hours on end.  Ada's refusal to talk had resulted in Flora being forced to become her interpreter with others.  

When Ada's father sells her into marriage to a New Zealand land owner named Alistair Stewart (Sam Neill), Ada takes along Flora and her precious piano with her.  After imperiously demanding to dropped off on the New Zealand coast with all of her belongings (and the piano), Ada and Flora wait for Stewart to arrive to pick them up.  When Stewart does show up, he arrives with a bunch of Maori natives and their English born but embedded Maori translator George Baines.  They gather up their belongings but leave the piano behind, which makes Ada furious.  The next day, Ada is suffering from piano withdrawal symptoms and convinces Baines to take her back to her piano on the beach so she can get her fix.  Once there, Baines realizes just how much Ada needs her piano so he later makes a deal with Stewart to take the piano for himself.

Baines' plan is to take the piano in exchange for land and he even gets Stewart to offer Ada as a piano teacher, all because he's attracted to her stern visage and strange ways.  At first Ada is furious that Stewart gave away her piano (she even writes an angry note) but eventually the lure of being able to play on the recovered piano every day mollifies her.  Baines tells Ada that he just wants to hear her play the piano since he loves hearing the music but that only lasts a couple of lessons before he tells her that he wants to sexually have his way with her why she plays the piano.  If she agrees to his extortion, he tells her that he will give her the piano back since he knows that's all she really cares about.  Of course she agrees to it but does negotiate to reduce the amount of remaining visits.

Even though they are now married, Ada and Stewart haven't consummated their relationship or even shared a kiss.  Ada barely even acknowledges his presence and Stewart tries to respect her wishes while hoping that she will come around to give him affection one day.  His plight is well known to his family members and the Maori tribe who all find great amusement in it.  When Ada gives herself to Baines, it isn't long before their secret is known to everyone except Stewart who eventually sees them having sex firsthand.  He boards up the house with Ada and Flora in it to prevent her from seeing Baines again.  

After some time has passed, Ada avoids Baines and makes a show of trying to mollify Stewart by caressing his body but in actuality she's just tormenting him by getting him aroused but then refuses to let him touch her.  Thinking that he can at least trust her to be faithful now (although I don't know why), Stewart asks Ada if she will see Baines while he's away on a trip.  She tells him no but as soon as he walks out the door she takes one of the piano keys and professes her love to Baines and tells Flora to deliver the key to Baines. Flora, who already resented her mother's earlier infidelity, decides to take the key to Stewart instead of Baines and all hell breaks loose. 

I'm well aware that this is a film that is loved and honored by many, but I dislike the movie as it's filled with self-serving characters who only worry about themselves.  I didn't have a shred of sympathy for Ada because every bad thing that happened to her was a result of her actions.  She could speak if she wanted to but she chooses to remain indifferent to the world and make them deal with her on her terms.  She cheats on Stewart and deliberately drives him crazy even when he showed her nothing but kindness and patience. When Stewart does finally snap it almost seems inevitable.  Even when he takes his anger and frustration out on her in a terribly brutal way, you still kind of feel sorry for him because she's turned a good man into a jealous beast.  Part of that is because of her selfish actions, but it's also because Sam Neill does such an incredible job in the role.  If anyone deserved an Academy award for this movie it was him.  Anna Paquin also makes an impressive debut as Flora although it is kind of weird seeing her as a child after watching her cavort around in "True Blood."  The final nail in the coffin for me was that the movie feels like it's four hours long.  This movie felt self-indulgent and bloated and it had many scenes that could have easily been excised without affecting the movie.  The Piano may have won a ton of awards and almost universal acclaim, but I can't endorse it in good faith.

Video (4 out of 5 stars)

While I didn't care much for the movie itself, I don't mind praising its fairly strong Blu-ray presentation.  This 1080p (1.78:1) transfer looks fairly sharp overall although there is some noticeable grain throughout.  Colors look excellent in this transfer and they are well delineated for the entire movie.  Flesh tones tend to be on the pale side but they are consistent while black levels are fairly inky which is a good thing since this movie has many dark scenes.  While this transfer isn't perfect it is a pretty good one especially for an older catalog release.

Audio (4 out of 5 stars)

The Piano's DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mix may not the usual DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix that Lionsgate usually offers, but it does a pretty good job anyway.  While the movie is essentially a dialogue driven drama, it does sport some instances of impressive sonic power like the opening sequence that shows Ada and Flora being dropped off on the beach amidst the roaring waves.  The dialogue is clear and the mix offers some nice ambiance for the rear channels and the score by Michael Nyman is also well balanced with the rest of mix and effects.

Extras (1 out of 5 stars)

The only extra on this disc is the movie's trailer which is surprising for an Academy award winning film.

Summary (3 out of 5 stars)

While I'm not a fan of The Piano, I can still appreciate the performances and the cinematography that captured some of the wild beauty of New Zealand.  This Blu-ray's video and audio quality is pretty impressive but it's a shame that there's no extras for fans of the movie.  If you love the movie, you should appreciate it's debut in high definition!

Order your copy today!


  1. A very interesting review: I've seen the movie many times and it's one of my favourites, but I do acknowledge that it has problems. For me, the biggest thing are all the gaps that are never filled in: why did Ada stop talking, what was her relationship with Flora's father, who was Flora's father for that matter, why has Baines left his wife in England and begun a new life, adopting the Maori culture and language etc. I could go on forever but I won't.

    Are you familiar with the fairy tale of Bluebeard? If not then the movie is a very different experience if one knows the story because it works as a strong intertext: they even reference it when they're doing the play with the dead wives in it.

    Anyway, interesting review even though I don't agree with everything. :)

  2. Hi Lottahei!

    I wondered the same questions that you mentioned. It seems like there's a missing movie that took place before this one that could have explained all of the missing gaps. I'm not aware of the Bluebeard tale which it sounds like it might have helped me appreciate the movie more if I had been aware of it. Thanks for reading my review and for taking the time to leave me a comment!