The Piano is a moody movie. Moody as in unpredictable and volatile, and moody as in suggesting melancholy and mystery. Even before the story really gets underway the film's atmosphere is one of unease. And it's because it's not just the story that's moody but visually, too. As Stuart Dryburgh's camera observes the rough, muddy ranches of New Zealand the harsh exteremities of the terrain seem to be not just incidental but direct representations of the similarly implacable characters.
This is but one of the numerous ways in which the Gothic influence on The Piano shines through, where landscape informs elements of plot and characters. The Piano checks off a number of the prerequisites for Gothic drama: impulsive, sometimes tyrannical men, women in distress, heightened emotion, a mysterious atmosphere, a somewhat isolated locale, stormy weather and muddy terrains.
Of the influence of the Gothic in the film, Jane confesses...
I feel a kinship between the kind of romance Emily Brontë portrayed in 'Wuthering Heights’ and this film. Hers is not the notion of romance that we’ve come to use; it’s very harsh and extreme, a Gothic exploration of the romantic impulse.
And much of The Piano is harsh and extreme. My favourite example of this gothic underbelly is towards the film’s end, in the most climactic scene. For one of the most prototypical attributes of the gothic piece is the appearance of menacing rain.
21 year old movie spoilers follow...
Mute Ada, and her daughter Flora, have endured a terrible journey across the sea to New Zealand. Her father has married her off to Alisdair, a land owner, a congenial, but priggish, man who does not understand his new wife. He sells her beloved piano for land to Baines who uses it as leverage to begin a sexual liaison with Ada. Ada finds herself drawn to Baines, as Alisdair becomes frustrated with his wife's aloofness/ By this time temperamental Flora has grown close to Alisdair and when Ada uses her as a messanger to send a love not to Baines it's intercepted by Alisdair, and we hurtle towards the climax we knew was inevitable. As he makes his way home, axe in hand, the thunder rolls. Beware, the weather is telling us, 'Trouble ahead.'
By now the rain is at full bore, and Michael Nyman's piano-driven score is at feverish pitch. Ada is dragged outside. Her punishment for breaking her marriage vows is losing a finger.
In this moment, even though Alisdair wields the axe he seems less in control. The serene look on Ada's face is haunting, and Alisdair's repeated, "Do you love him?" only makes him seem more ineffectual in his violence.
Jane mercifully (?) cuts away from the finger to focus on Flora, unwitting catalyst of so much drama in the film. But even that image of Flora becomes something brutal. Flora, dressed as an angel, spattered in blood; this precocious child has been forcibly thrust into the world of adults, collateral damage of Alisdair's actions.
And then back to Ada .Even without the intermittent narration Holly Hunter's Oscar winning performance ould be a tour-de-force. Every shot of her face throughout tells us multitudes.
I remember the first time watching this what stood out most about this was the way Ada’s dress was more than just simple attire but an almost debilitating holding her back in the mud. When Alisdair forcibly drags her out the house, it’s his power with the axe as well as the constricting dress muddied in the slush that prevents her from escaping. Consider this incredible image:
This image underscores Campion’s debt to the Brontës but less Wuthering Heights, more Jane Eyre. That image of Holly from behind could practically be of Mia Wasikowska in Cary Fukunaga’s recent adapation of hte latter. Heavy rains, unrelenting weather, billowing dresses and a woman (temporarily) felled.
In cutting off her finger Alisdair has robbed Ada of access to her de facto voice via the piano. And as Alisdair sends Flora off to play messenger with Ada's finger the scene leaves us with Ada in the rain, in the most vulnerable position she takes in the film. The relentless rain is a metonymy of all the gloom and terror which comes with this new terrain, forcing Ada to her knees.
That this scene happens during a downpour is not incidental but a conscious auteurial decision from Jane Campion. It's not only a reminder of the story's Gothic roots but a manifestation of everything this new world has wrought on Ada: Mud, discomfort, unease and loss of agency.