Name: The Piano
- 001. Synopsis
The Piano tells the story of a mute Scotswoman, Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter), whose father sells her into marriage to a New Zealand frontiersman, Alistair Stewart (Sam Neill). She is shipped off along with her young daughter Flora McGrath (Anna Paquin). Ada has not spoken a word since she was six years old, expressing herself instead through her piano playing and through sign language for which her daughter has served as the interpreter. Ada cares little for the mundane world, occupying herself for hours every day with the 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 Mori crew and his friend Baines (Harvey 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 for 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. In the meantime, 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 she and Baines have sex. 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 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, Ada describes her life with Baines and Flora in Nelson, England, 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.’ Ada has also started to take speech lessons in order to learn how to speak again. The film closes with the Thomas Hood quote, from his poem “Silence”, which also opened the film:
“There is a silence where hath been no sound. There is a silence where no sound may be in the cold grave under the deep deep sea.”