THE PIANO – Blu-ray review

Jane Campion’s “The Piano” (1993) is a powerful testament to blind passion, bringing in a wave of unexpected consequences for its protagonist, Ada (Holly Hunter). The opening sequence shows Ada with her daughter Flora (Ana Paquin) on a beach with a piano, along with their other belongings. The piano is big, and it can’t be accommodated in the home of her newly wed husband, Alistair, played by Sam Neill.  The size of the piano represents a prominent metaphor on Ada’s life. The piano’s size is irrelevant to Ada, and her love for the piano is unflinching. Clearly, the piano occupies a major portion of Ada’s life, and taking the piano away disturbs her greatly. Eventually, she becomes a part of a deal and ends up developing a relationship with a local Maori, Mr. Banes (Harvey Keitel).

As the opening scene plays out, we think we will see the main character talk. But what we hear is Ada’s voice-over, and she hasn’t spoken since her childhood. To fill her world with sounds, Ada plays the piano, letting herself get lost in a musical bliss. Life at this point is a symphony for Ada, with the piano taking the center stage. The segment is filled with such an arousing voice that we find it hard to believe Ada is mute. As such, her personality is empowering, even when she is unable to talk. People who are mute are generally viewed as pushovers, because they are perceived as weak and abnormal. Evidently, Ada is not this type. Determined, utterly focused, and steadfast, Ada’s strength forms a big part of her personality. Ada’s strength is tested when Alistair inflicts a deafening blow on Ada’s hand, crippling her ability to play the piano again. As she is overwhelmed with the pain, Ada absorbs the melancholy event in her life with remarkable strength. Her expression of shock and dismay is not associated with losing a finger, but with the reality of her losing self-produced sounds from the piano. It’s like taking away a magical wand from a magician, or depriving a musician of his or her beloved instrument. Suddenly she is a musical orphan.

For Ada, music is everything, and when a sensual bond develops with Mr. Banes, Ada is forced into a relationship because of her piano. Did Mr. Banes take advantage of Ada’s situation? Certainly. But as their bond deepens, Ada realizes she is in love with Mr. Banes. He makes Ada safe, and at the same time when he can seem opportunistic, he cares deeply about her feelings. On the other hand, she keeps Alistair at arm’s length, pushing Alistair to his limits and inciting the worst in him. Nonetheless, Ada later opens up to Alistair in a unique way, which she demonstrates in one sensual scene. She rolls her fingertips gently on Alistair’s torso and his back, indicative of a musician playing a piano. She is at peace, harmoniously moving her body, and locking herself in perfect synchronicity with the music flowing in her head.

Flora helps Ada at every step, serving her as a translator. While being playful and brimming with youthful innocence, Flora is fully aware of the tense relationship between Ada and Alistair, and her relationship to Mr. Banes as well. But she lacks the wisdom to understand the repercussions of Ada’s actions. In the performances, Holly Hunter’s delivers a riveting portrayal by perfectly embodying a mute person. Despite the fact her character doesn’t talk, Hunter manages to absorb us with her realistically expressive face. Sorrow and happy moments, although sparse, are artistically conveyed and beautifies the pain. In 1994, Hunter won an Academy Award for her performance, which is only the third time an actress has won an Oscar for a nonspeaking role. As a child performer, Ana Paquin is thoroughly believable, too, and her character propels the plot. Paquin became the second-youngest star to win an Academy Award in the Best Supporting Actress category. Yet the accolades don’t stop here. Even though Jane Campion didn’t win an Oscar for Best Director, she, in the process, became only the second female director, up until that point, to be nominated in this category. Nonetheless, Campion’s screenplay bagged an award for Best Writing. Apart from this, elsewhere, “The Piano” was a huge hit with critics, who praised the film’s script and Hunter’s performance in particular.

“The Piano” is a strong feminist piece that conforms to the same template of Campion’s earlier movies, and the movies that followed after “The Piano.” The central characters in Campion’s are all females. Whether it is an emotionally unstable Sweetie in “Sweetie” (1989), or Janet Frame in “An Angel at my Table” (1990), or Ruth in “Holy Smoke” (1999), these characters have one element in common: they are trying to engrave their identities in unconventional ways. Representative of what these characters might be feeling, the female bodies in Campion’s films symbolize a rebellious texture of females set in a traditional world. The film’s era almost feels secondary, and what we see in “The Piano” is a case study of a female, signifying that an art form has no boundaries.

Campion’s directorial style makes “The Piano” a haunting film, especially in the climax when Ada’s body swirls down the ocean’s depth, pulling her down with her beloved instrument. Ada might soon be swallowed by the ocean’s darkness, and that very moment, Campion brilliantly augments Ada’s thought process between death and life. Ada’s body magically hangs in deep waters, and the final surge indicates the strength of her soul.

“The Piano” arrives on Blu-ray in a disappointing-looking 1080p, framed in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and encoded using an AVC codec. First, let’s discuss the positives attributes of this transfer. The indoor shots have good clarity, especially in the close-ups, and the flesh tones retain realistic look. A natural grain is present throughout, although in some scenes it is noticeably heavier. On the negative side, the detail is not all that remarkable. The transfer lacks the dimensionality that we expect from a good HD transfer. Sharpness is inconsistent, too. These problems are further compounded by issues in the outdoor segments. For some reason, the transfer has a bluish-silver look to it, overexposed in some areas. The skin tones also appear off at times. As a result, the whites dominate in some shots, crushing colors around objects. Nonetheless, the transfer feels like an upconverted DVD version, giving an impression that this is an old transfer.

Lionsgate has included a 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track. For a dialogue-driven movie, this track functions well. The dialogue is audible and is mostly clean. The front channels remain active throughout.

There are no new bonus features, apart from the film’s theatrical trailer.

Parting Thoughts:
“The Piano” is a mesmerizing experience, featuring dual memorable performances by Holly Hunter and Ana Paquin. The story is effective, and the script invests heavily in its characters. The blend of fantasy-like segments gives the film a dreamy, haunting feeling. As far as recommending this Blu-ray release, however, the video and audio are both underwhelming, and the BD doesn’t offer much of an upgrade from the earlier standard-def release.