by Stanley Kauffmann
. . . Two films about a woman who plays the piano. The first, The Piano (Miramax), garlanded with Cannes Festival prizes, is an overwrought, hollowly symbolic glob of glutinous nonsense. The New Zealand writer-director Jane Campion, who made an appealing film of Janet Frame’s autobiography An Angel at My Table, here reverts to the thick, self-conscious poeticizing of her first film, Sweetie.
In the mid-nineteenth century, a young Scotswoman, played by Holly Hunter, goes with her small (illegitimate) daughter to an arranged marriage in the New Zealand outback. The woman is mute; we’re never told the cause, though she sometimes speaks to us on the sound track. She insists on taking her piano with her, so even the dimmest among us can perceive that the piano is her symbolic voice.
Her “voice” is hellishly troublesome to bring ashore on the wild coast and to carry through the dense forest. Once established in her new home, Hunter doesn’t respond to her husband, Sam Neill, though in time she does respond to her neighbor, Harvey Keitel (here he’s a Scotsman with Maori tattooings – more symbolism). The story would be merely another wilderness triangle except for the illogic. When Neill discovers Hunter in bed with Keitel, he hides under the house to listen to them; later, however, he cuts off one of Hunter’s fingertips when she merely tries to communicate with Keitel.
All this is ladled over with a rich gravy of tropical foliage, Maori simple wisdom and much assumption on the film’s part of our utter sympathy for this quite peculiar woman. At the end she and Keitel leave together, and en route the piano is hurled into the sea. Wow. What a symbol – the piano on the ocean floor. Only a clod like me would ask what it’s a symbol of – since, at the last, Hunter is still mute and is playing another piano, her injured finger tipped with metal.
Every moment is upholstered with the suffocating high-mindedness that declines to connect symbols with comprehensible themes. I haven’t seen a sillier film about a woman and a piano since John Huston’s The Unforgiven (1960), a Western in which Lillian Gish had her piano carried out into the front yard so she could play Mozart to pacify attacking Indians. . . .
The New Republic, December 13, 1993