This essay is by our guest writer, Laura Venning.
This month, Jane Campion’s The Piano has returned to UK cinemas for its 25th anniversary. It remains an incredibly powerful film that cemented Campion as one of the most important female filmmakers of all time, but also, as one of few New Zealand filmmakers to gain international renown. Years before audiences were awed by the landscape of Middle Earth in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy or charmed by the brilliant comedic vision of Taika Waititi, they landed on a turbulent North Island beach with Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter).
Campion had previously enjoyed acclaim for her early work (Peel won the Short Film Palme d’Or at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival), but it was the success of The Piano which elevated her to an unforeseen level of fame. Her erotic tale of female passion at the edge of the world made her the first female winner of the Palme d’Or (but shared with Kaige Chen for Farewell My Concubine) and only the second woman to be nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards where she won Best Original Screenplay.
Set in the mid-19th century, the film tells the story of Ada McGrath, a mute woman who is shipped across the world to New Zealand to marry a landowner she has never met, accompanied by her young daughter Flora (Anna Paquin) and her beloved piano. Ada is furious and bereft when Stewart (Sam Neill), her new husband, refuses to haul the piano with them from the beach to their house in the bush. Forester George Baines (Harvey Keitel) takes possession of the piano and strikes a deal with Ada. She can win it back key by key if she permits him to gaze at her and touch her however he pleases while she plays. She is gradually seduced by him while resisting her new husband with violent, innocence-shattering consequences.
Perhaps the most memorable image in The Piano is that of Ada and Flora in their restrictive, funereal Victorian costumes beside the piano, a symbol of “civilised” society, on a stormy beach. Although Campion had already begun to explore such themes in earlier films like Sweetie and An Angel at My Table, The Piano positioned her as a filmmaker primarily concerned with female subjectivity within a patriarchal environment and with the representation of Antipodean landscape and national identity. This image, so striking it was used on the poster, demonstrates the entwinement of landscape and narrative that helps define the film as part of the Gothic tradition, a piece of New Zealand national cinema and as a key work in the Kiwi Gothic subgenre.
The Gothic originated in 18th-century literature. Characterised by scenes of horror, terror, madness, death and sexual depravity in sinister locations, Gothic literature subverted the scientific advancements emphasised during the Age of Enlightenment, and instead, explored untamed passion and dark psychological states. Of course, The Piano’s 19th-century setting, the era in which the genre was most popular, helps immediately identify it as a Gothic piece but the narrative elements of a repressed woman, a cruel husband and the awakening of female sexual desire in a wild landscape places it firmly within the tradition.
Campion has frequently cited the Brontës, particularly Wuthering Heights, as a source of inspiration for The Piano. Just as Emily Brontë did, she utilises the landscape to visualise Ada’s emotional state as she discovers her own wildness in the untamed forest and the turbulent sea. The film’s dominant colours are dark blues, greens and black, giving it a gloomy feel that’s reminiscent of being underwater, a psychoanalytic space that represents Ada’s transformation and rebirth. Campion includes an explicit reference to the Gothic when the settlers perform an amateur production of the legend of Bluebeard, a French folktale about a wealthy man who periodically murders his beautiful young wives. The story, of course, mirrors the violent actions of Ada’s husband Stewart, but it’s notable that Ada is no traditional Gothic heroine. She isn’t an archetypal innocent virgin or evil temptress but a complex woman pursuing her own desire.
The Piano is not a story that could be told in the same way if it were to be uprooted and retold in any similarly uncultivated landscape. It engages with distinctly Kiwi values and concerns that identify it as a Kiwi Gothic film. Academic Ian Conrich created the term which contradicts the tourist-friendly image of New Zealand as a lush, verdant haven. Instead, it’s a rugged, untamed country that is often portrayed in Kiwi film as an environment of desperation. Kiwi Gothic is closely linked to New Zealand’s identity as a settler nation of European descent and the settlers’ struggle to ‘civilise’ the ‘Otherness’ of the landscape, resulting in a lasting national sense of displacement and discomfort. There is fascinating writing on New Zealand as a nation torn between these two identities and how the puritanical nature of the colonisers culturally survives to this day as the conservative attitude towards sexuality and emotional expression. This is explored in the excellent documentary on New Zealand film The Cinema of Unease (available on the BFI Player), written and presented by The Piano’s Sam Neill.
The Piano is evidently a key film in this canon as it depicts the violent and puritanical nature of colonialism. The other white settlers in the film are absurdly removed from their environment, attempting to force European gentility into an unforgiving landscape. Aunt Morag (Kerry Walker) stops to urinate in the middle of her woodland walk, snapping at her companions to keep the makeshift screen raised to conceal her shameful natural act. If only she could be as liberated as Ada is once she sheds her repressive layers of costume.
Stewart has bought and invaded the land just as he has bought and attempts to invade Ada’s body. He chops off her finger just as he chops down the trees, and hammers posts into the ground engraved with his initials marking “his” territory. He would rather cut down the trees than see his adoptive daughter Flora rub against them suggestively as the Maori children do, forcing her to “purify” the trunks with water as a punishment. Campion has been rightfully criticised for the role of the Maori in this film, as a comedic chorus with no real individual character, while it’s Ada, a white outsider, whose body is symbolically linked to the destruction of the land. She also falls in love with Baines who, not only coerces her into allowing him to perform sexual acts, but is a white man who has “gone native”, marking his face with traditional moko facial tattoos. She’s attracted to him as a representation of the wild liberation of the landscape and as an alternative to her prim husband, and yet Baines is just as much of an outsider as Stewart. It’s arguable that this cannot be defined as national cinema in that New Zealand is viewed from the perspective of a European settler as portrayed by a Kiwi of European descent (or Pākehā) and much of its funding came from overseas. However, while this criticism is certainly difficult to dispute, the conflict between civilisation and wilderness is such a defining element of Antipodean cinema it cannot so easily be dismissed.
Jane Campion hasn’t made another feature film set in New Zealand since The Piano, instead, setting television series Top of the Lake in the fictional New Zealand town of Lake Top. Probably her widest seen and most acclaimed work since The Piano, Top of the Lake is clearly its descendant in that it’s another tale of women struggling against masculine violence and the search for identity in a colonised land. Holly Hunter appearing as women’s retreat leader G.J. could almost be Ada’s direct relative. The Piano will certainly live on as a film that interrogates the patriarchy and the male gaze, but it can also be positioned as a piece of New Zealand national cinema. Joining films like Vigil, Heavenly Creatures, In My Father’s Den, and even vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, The Piano is certainly Kiwi Gothic and perhaps even defines the subgenre. Desire, repression, madness, violence and a search for home in a land invaded, it brought the landscape and identity of New Zealand onto an international stage and redefined both women and Kiwi cinema.