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

Alistair Fox has argued that The Piano was significantly influenced by Jane Mander's The Story of a New Zealand River.


The Piano tells the story of a mute Scotswoman, Ada McGrath (Hunter), whose father sells her into marriage to a New Zealand frontiersman, Alistair Stewart (Neill), and she is shipped off along with her young daughter Flora (Paquin). Ada has not spoken a word since she was six years old, communicating instead through sign language for which her near-adolescent daughter has served as the interpreter. Ada has no occupation, and has spent most of her time obsessively playing her 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 control with her mind, making him love her, but who "became frightened and stopped listening," and thus left her.

Ada, Flora and their belongings, including the piano, are deposited on a New Zealand beach by the ship's crew against her angry objections. As there is no one there to meet them, they spend the night alone, sheltering under a tiny tent made of a hoop skirt frame. The following day, Alistair arrives with a Māori crew and his friend Baines (Keitel), a fellow forester and a retired sailor, who has adopted many of the Maori customs, including tattooing his face and socializing with the Maori instead of his own race (save Alistair). There are insufficient men to carry everything and Alistair abandons the piano, again eliciting objections from Ada.

Alistair proves to be a shy and diffident man, who is jokingly called "old dry balls" by his Maori cohorts. He tells Ada that there is no room in his small house for the piano. Ada, in turn, makes no effort to befriend him and continues to try to be reunited with her piano. Unable to communicate with Alistair, she goes, with Flora, to Baines and asks to be taken to the piano. He agrees, and the three spend the day as she plays tunes on the beach. While he socially allies himself with the Maori, Baines has steadfastly refused any sexual activity with their women. But he clearly finds Ada attractive due to her passion about music. Baines eventually retrieves the instrument and suggests that Alistair trade it and lessons from Ada for some land that Alistair wants. Alistair consents, oblivious to the budding attraction between Ada and Baines. She is surprised to find that he has had the piano put into perfect tune after its rough journey. He asks to simply listen rather than learn to play himself, and then offers to let her buy the piano back, one key at a time, by letting him do 'things he likes' while she plays. Ada ambivalently agrees as she is attracted to Baines. Ada and Alistair have had no sexual, or even mildly affectionate, interaction even though they are by now formally married.

Baines is sexually aroused by Ada's playing to the point that he openly approaches her. Finally, she yields to her own lust one afternoon, and allows Baines to have intercourse with her. Alistair finally begins to suspect the love affair and after discovering them, he angrily boards up his home with Ada inside when he goes off to work on his timberland. After that interlude, Ada avoids Baines and feigns affection with Alistair, though her caresses only serve to frustrate him more because when he makes a move to touch her in return, she sadistically pulls away. Before Alistair departs on his next journey, he asks Ada if she will go to see Baines she shakes her head no and he tells her he trusts that she won't go to him while he's gone.

Soon after, Ada sends her daughter with a package for Baines, containing a single piano key with an inscribed love declaration. Flora has begun to accept Alistair as her 'papa' and is angered by her mother's infidelity. She brings the piano key instead to Alistair. After reading the love note burnt onto the piano key, Alistair furiously returns home and chops off Ada's index finger with an axe to deprive her of the ability to play her piano.

After Ada recovers from her injury, Alistair sends her and Flora away with Baines and dissolves their marriage. 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 jammed into a rowboat, Ada feels that the piano is ruined as she can no longer play and insists that Baines throw the piano overboard. As it sinks, she deliberately puts her foot into the loops of rope trailing overboard. She is rapidly pulled deep underwater connected by the rope to the piano but then she changes her mind and kicks free to be pulled back into the boat.

In an epilogue, she describes her 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 digit 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.' The film closes with the Thomas Hood quote, from his poem "Silence", which also opened the film:


The film won the Palme d'Or (Golden Palm, shared with Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine) and a Best Performance Prize for Holly Hunter at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival. In 1994, the film won Academy Awards for Best Actress in a Leading Role (Holly Hunter), as well as Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Anna Paquin) and Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen. Anna Paquin was the second youngest person after Tatum O'Neal to win an Academy Award. Holly Hunter is notable for being the only actress 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 premier at the Hawaii International Film Festival.

Critical reaction was overwhelmingly supportive. 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". In a Rotten Tomatoes sample of top critics, The Piano scored a 100 percent rating.




  • Academy Awards:
    • Best Cinematography (Stuart Dryburgh)
    • Best Costume Design (Janet Patterson)
    • Best Director (Jane Campion)
    • Best Editing (Veronika Jenet)
    • Best Picture
  • 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 :
    • 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)


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).


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 movies at the time. Juliette Binoche was considered for the role at one stage, as was Anjelica Huston. 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. 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.



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

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