The Piano

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The Piano
US theatrical release poster
Directed by Jane Campion
Produced by Jan Chapman
Written by Jane Campion
Narrated by Holly Hunter
Starring Holly Hunter
Harvey Keitel
Sam Neill
Anna Paquin
Music by Michael Nyman
Cinematography Stuart Dryburgh
Editing by Veronika Jenet
Studio Jan Chapman Productions
CiBy 2000
Distributed by Bac Films (France) Miramax Films (US) Entertainment Film Distributors (UK)
Release dates
  • 15 May 1993 (1993-05-15) (Cannes)
  • 19 May 1993 (1993-05-19) (France)
  • 5 August 1993 (1993-08-05) (Australia)
Running time 117 minutes
Country New Zealand
Language English
British Sign Language
Budget $7 million[1]
Box office $40,157,856[2]

The Piano is a 1993 New Zealand romantic drama film about a mute pianist and her daughter, set during the mid-19th century in a rainy, muddy frontier backwater on the west coast of New Zealand. The film was written and directed by Jane Campion, and stars Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel, Sam Neill, and Anna Paquin, in her first acting role. It features a score for the piano by Michael Nyman which became a best-selling soundtrack album. Hunter played her own piano pieces for the film, and also served as sign language teacher for Paquin, earning three screen credits. The film is an international co-production by Australian producer Jan Chapman with the French company Ciby 2000.

The Piano was a success both critically and commercially, grossing $40.2 million, against its $7 million budget. Hunter and Paquin both received high praise for their respective roles as Ada McGrath and Flora McGrath. In March 1994, The Piano won 3 Academy Awards out of 8 total nominations: Best Actress for Hunter, Best Supporting Actress for Paquin, and Best Original Screenplay for Campion. Paquin, who at the time was 11 years old, is the second youngest Oscar winner ever in a competitive category, after Tatum O'Neal, who also won Supporting Actress in 1974 for Paper Moon, at 10.


The Piano tells the story of a mute Scotswoman, Ada McGrath, whose father sells her into marriage to a New Zealand frontiersman, Alisdair Stewart. She is shipped off along with her young daughter Flora. The voice that the audience hears in the opening narration is "not her speaking voice, but her mind's voice". Ada has not spoken a word since she was six years old and no one, including herself, knows why. She expresses herself through her piano playing and through sign language for which her daughter has served as the interpreter. Flora later dramatically tells two women in New Zealand that her mother has not spoken since the death of her husband who died as a result of being struck by lightning. Ada cares little for the mundane world, occupying herself for hours every day with the piano. It is never made explicitly clear why she ceased to speak. Flora, it is later learned, is the product of a relationship with a teacher whom Ada believed she could communicate through her mind, but who "became frightened and stopped listening," and thus left her.

Ada, her daughter Flora, and their belongings, including a piano, are deposited on a New Zealand beach by a ship's crew. As there is no one there to meet them, they spend the night alone on the beach amongst their crated belongings. The following day, the husband who has bought her, Alisdair, arrives with a Māori crew and his white friend Baines. Baines is a fellow forester and retired sailor, who has adopted many of the Māori customs, including tattooing his face and socializing with the Māori. There are insufficient men to carry everything and Alisdair abandons the piano on the beach, eliciting strong objections from Ada.

Alisdair proves to be a shy and diffident man, who is jokingly called "old dry balls" by his Māori neighbors. He tells Ada that there is no room in his small house for the piano. Ada, in turn, remains cold to him and continues to try to be reunited with her piano. Unable to communicate with Alisdair, she goes with Flora, to Baines with a note asking to be taken to the piano. He explains he cannot read. When Flora translates her mothers wishes, he initially refuses, but the three ultimately spend the day on the beach with Ada playing music. While he socially aligns himself with the Māori, Baines has not taken a woman for himself. He is taken by the transformation in Ada when she plays her piano. Baines soon suggests that Alisdair trade the instrument to him for some land. Alisdair consents, and agrees to his further request —lessons from Ada— oblivious to his attraction to her. When Ada hears that her prized possession has been traded away without so much as a word about it, she is enraged. She explains that she does not want a man with filthy hands and no ability to read touching her piano. Alisdair shouts the finality of his decision and demands that she fulfill the contract of providing lessons. On the day she arrives at his hut, she attempts to make an excuse that she can't play on the piano because it is out of tune. She is stunned to find that Baines has had the piano put into perfect tune. She begins by asking him to play anything he knows, he asks to simply listen rather than learn to play himself. It becomes clear that he procured the piano not for his own interest in music, but because he enjoys what it does for her when she plays. He proposes, at one lesson that they make a bargain so that she can earn her piano back. He suggests that in exchange for one piano key per "lesson", he might observe her and do "things he likes" while she plays. She is not anxious to accept the deal, but cannot refuse the notion of getting her piano back. She agrees, but negotiates for a number of "lessons" equal to the number of black keys only. While Ada and her husband Alisdair have had no sexual, nor even mildly affectionate, interaction, the lessons with Baines become a slow seduction for her affection. Baines requests gradually increased intimacy in exchange for greater numbers of keys. But she does so grudgingly and does not give herself to him the way he desires. Realizing that she only does what she has to in order to regain the piano, and that she has no romantic attachment to him for himself, Baines in despair simply returns the piano to Ada. He feels that their arrangement "is making you a whore, and me a lecher", and that what he really wants is for her to actually care for him, which he doesn't believe she can do.

Despite Ada having the piano back, she ultimately finds herself missing Baines watching her as she plays. She returns to him one afternoon, where they submit to their desire for one another. Alisdair, having begun to suspect something going on between them, hears them making love as he walks by Baines' house, and then watches them through a crack in the wall. Outraged, he follows her the next day and confronts her in the forest, where he attempts to force himself on her, despite her intense resistance. He then boards up his home with Ada inside so she won't be able to visit Baines while Alisdair is working on his timberland. After this, Ada realizes she must show affection with Alisdair if she is ever to be released from her home prison, though her caresses only serve to frustrate him more because when he tries to touch her, she pulls away. Eventually resolving to trust her, he removes the barriers from the house, and exacts a promise from Ada that she won't see Baines.

Soon after, Ada sends her daughter with a package for Baines, containing a single piano key with an inscribed love declaration and the side reading "Dear George you have my heart Ada McGrath". Flora does not want to deliver the package and brings the piano key instead to Alisdair. After reading the love note burnt onto the piano key, Alisdair furiously returns home with an axe and cuts off Ada's index finger, while Flora watches on in horror. He then sends Flora to Baines with the severed finger wrapped in cloth, with the message that if Baines ever attempts to see Ada again, he will chop off more fingers.

Later that night, while touching Ada in her sleep, Alisdair hears what he believes to be Ada's voice inside of his head, asking him to let Baines take her away. Deeply shaken, he goes to Baines' house and asks if she has ever spoken words to him. Baines assures him she has not. Ultimately, he decides to send Ada and Flora away with Baines and dissolve their marriage once Ada has recovered from her injuries. They depart from the same beach on which she first landed in New Zealand. While being rowed to the ship with her baggage and the piano tied onto a Maori longboat, Ada insists that Baines throw the piano overboard. As it sinks, she deliberately tangles her foot in the rope trailing after it. She is pulled overboard but, deep underwater, changes her mind and kicks free and is pulled to safety.

In an epilogue, Ada describes her new life with Baines and Flora in Nelson, where she has started to give piano lessons in their new home, and her severed finger has been replaced with a silver finger made by Baines. Ada says that she imagines her piano in its grave in the sea, and herself suspended above it, which "lulls me to sleep." Ada has also started to take speech lessons in order to learn how to speak again. The film closes with the Thomas Hood quotation, from his poem "Silence," which also opened the film: "There is a silence where hath been no sound. There is a silence where no sound may be in the cold grave under the deep deep sea."



Casting the role of Ada was a difficult process. Sigourney Weaver was Campion's first choice, but she turned down the role because she was taking a break from film at the time. Jennifer Jason Leigh was also considered but she couldn't meet with Campion to read the script because she was committed to shooting the film Rush.[3] Isabelle Huppert met with Jane Campion and had vintage period-style photographs taken of her as Ada, and later said she regretted not fighting for the role as Hunter did.[4]

The casting for Flora occurred after Hunter had been selected for the part. They did a series of open auditions for girls age 9 to 13, focusing on girls who were small enough to be believable as Ada's daughter (as Holly Hunter is a rather short actress at 5' 2"[5]). Anna Paquin ended up winning the role of Flora over 5,000 other girls.[6]

Alidtair Fox has argued that The Piano was significantly influenced by Jane Mander's The Story of a New Zealand River.[7] Robert Macklin, an associate editor with The Canberra Times newspaper, has also written about the similarities.[8]

The film also serves as a retelling of the fairytale "Bluebeard",[9][10] which is hinted at further in the inclusion of "Bluebeard" as a piece of the Christmas pageant.

In July 2013, Campion revealed that she originally intended for the main character to drown in the sea after going overboard after her piano.[11]

Production on the film started in April 1992, filming began on 11 May 1992 and lasted until July of 1992, and production officially ended on 22 December 1992.[12]


Reviews for the film were overwhelmingly positive. Roger Ebert wrote: "The Piano is as peculiar and haunting as any film I've seen" and "It is one of those rare movies that is not just about a story, or some characters, but about a whole universe of feeling." Hal Hinson of The Washington Post called it "[An] evocative, powerful, extraordinarily beautiful film." On the film site Rotten Tomatoes, The Piano earned a 90% "Certified Fresh" rating.[13] On Metacritic, it holds a score of 89 out of 100, indicating "universal acclaim".[14]

At the 1993 Cannes Film Festival, the film shared the Palme d'Or Best Film Award with Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine, and Holly Hunter was awarded the Best Actress Award.[15] In 1994, the film won 3 Academy Awards; Best Actress (Holly Hunter), Best Supporting Actress (Anna Paquin) and Best Original Screenplay (Jane Campion). Anna Paquin was the second youngest person after Tatum O'Neal to win an Academy Award. Holly Hunter is notable for being one of three actresses – along with Marlee Matlin (for her American sign language performance in Children of a Lesser God) and Jane Wyman (for her deaf-mute role in Johnny Belinda) − to receive an Academy Award for Best Actress in the post-silent era for a non-speaking role (her voice is only heard off-screen in a few scenes). The film made its US premiere at the Hawaii International Film Festival.


  • Academy Awards:
    • Best Cinematography (Stuart Dryburgh)
    • Best Costume Design (Janet Patterson)
    • Best Director (Jane Campion)
    • Best Editing (Veronika Jenet)
    • Best Picture (Jan Chapman)
  • American Cinema Editors:
    • Best Edited Feature Film (Veronika Jenet)
  • American Society of Cinematographers:
    • Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography in Theatrical Releases (Stuart Dryburgh)
  • Australian Film Institute:
    • Best Supporting Actor (Sam Neill)
    • Best Supporting Actress (Kerry Walker)
  • BAFTA Awards:
    • Best Cinematography
    • Best Director (Jane Campion)
    • Best Editing
    • Best Film
    • Best Score (Michael Nyman)
    • Best Screenplay – Original (Jane Campion)
    • Best Sound
  • Directors Guild of America (DGA):
    • Best Director (Jane Campion)
  • Golden Globe Awards:
    • Best Director (Jane Campion)
    • Best Original Score (Michael Nyman)
    • Best Picture – Drama
    • Best Screenplay (Jane Campion)
    • Best Supporting Actress (Anna Paquin)


Extract from the score of the 1993 film "The Piano"

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The score for the film was written by Michael Nyman, and included the acclaimed piece "The Heart Asks Pleasure First"; additional pieces were "Big My Secret", "The Mood That Passes Through You", "Silver Fingered Fling", "Deep Sleep Playing" and "The Attraction of the Peddling Ankle". This album is rated in the top 100 soundtrack albums of all time and Nyman's work is regarded as a key voice in the film, which has a mute lead character (Entertainment Weekly, 12 October 2001, p. 44).

Home media[edit]

The film was released on DVD in 1997 by LIVE Entertainment and on Blu-ray on 31 January 2012 by Lionsgate, but already released in 2010 in Australia.[17]


  • Ellen Cheshire Jane Campion, Great Britain: Pocket Essentials, 2000.
  • Cynthia Kaufman "Colonialism, Purity, and Resistance in The Piano", Socialist Review 24 (1995): 251–55.

External links[edit]

Preceded by
Academy Award winner for
Best Actress and

Best Supporting Actress

Succeeded by
Shakespeare in Love