Can an actress be sabotaged by the sound of her own voice? Holly Hunter has given some brashly likable comic performances, but she has never struck me as an actress of much spirituality or depth. This, I think, is due mostly to the way she talks: in that spunky, girlish drawl, the voice of an eternal passenger on the Good Ship Lollipop. Now, though, a stunning transformation has taken place. In The Piano, the new romantic drama from New Zealand director Jane Campion (Sweetie, An Angel at My Table), Hunter is robbed of her voice — the character she plays is mute — and this seeming constriction has liberated her as an actress.
As Ada, a waiflike Scotswoman who journeys to the desolate colonial bush of 19th-century New Zealand to join in an arranged marriage, Hunter has an austere, powerful presence, like that of the great silent-film actresses. Ada wears tightly wound braids and cumbersome hoop skirts, but there’s nothing at all genteel about her face. It’s rough and drawn and as white as a corpse’s; it has a hypnotic severity, the features so starkly focused they barely reflect light. In The Piano (which shared the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival), Holly Hunter has never looked less glamorous or more beautiful. She’s a visual oxymoron, a corseted Victorian who, in some secret chamber of her soul, remains untouched by civilization.
Ada reveals that soul in two ways. To communicate with her 9-year-old daughter, Flora (Anna Paquin), who’s like her junior spiritual twin, she uses sign language. Her gestures are liquid yet shockingly swift, a direct, violent expression of her will. More than that, though, Ada has her piano. When she plays, the notes come out in rapturous, slow-building waves, creating a veritable ocean of feeling. Composed by Michael Nyman (and performed by Hunter herself), the film’s lush, rippling, New Age-on-the-moors soundtrack is more than merely beautiful; it’s intensely dramatic. In The Piano, Ada’s muteness, coupled with the haunting power of her musical voice, becomes Campion’s visionary metaphor for the condition of women in society: unable to “speak” the emotional volumes they have to say. Ada’s music is the subversive essence of her humanity, not just what she feels but who she is.
The early scenes are (deliberately) disorienting, as Ada and Flora land on a desolate beach and are greeted by Ada’s new husband, the laconic Stewart (Sam Neill), and by a group of Maori natives who hire themselves out to the white man for paltry wages. Campion, as always, works in a style of jagged, poetic hyperrealism, assembling images in an almost pointillistic fashion. There’s a touch of magic in the way she brings the primeval-forest setting to our senses — the mist and the rain, the psychedelic green moss, the thick, goopy mud along the pathways. What looks like a slightly off-kilter documentary, however, soon becomes a brooding romantic melodrama of almost classical grandeur.