Twenty years on, the 1990s’ most original costume drama remains perfectly in tune. What on paper sounds overly precious and mannered – a feminist fable about a mute obsessed with tinkling the ivories – is instead richly cinematic and layered with meaning.
The bare facts (the first female winner of the Palme d’Or; three Oscars – for writer/director Jane Campion’s screenplay, and stars Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin) don’t do justice to Campion’s ingenious film.
Inspired by Victorian literature, she devised the story during film school but waited until she felt mature enough to fashion something that is both a worthy successor to the 19th Century canon and a smart critique of its assumptions about women.
Hunter’s Ada is sent to new Zealand in an arranged marriage to haughty coloniser Stewart (Sam Neill). Stubbornly silent, she is treated as a commodity to be owned or bartered for – not least when neighbour Baines (Harvey Keitel) buys her beloved piano only to deal it back in return for sex – until Ada takes control of her own currency and they fall in love.
Add a subplot about Maori land rights, and this could be dull, worthy, liberal revisionism. Yet Campion’s surreal, erotic direction packs a punch, true to its setting without the cloying reverence of, say, Merchant Ivory.
There’s a sinuous quality to the editing, alert to Ada’s flashes of passion, while the cinematography captures new Zealand’s rugged, muddy beauty long before the dawn of Jacko’s Middle-Earth.
Crucially, where period adaptations are often straitjacketed by their source material, by starting from scratch Campion is free to build the story aurally and visually. Just as the story feels like a long-lost classic novel, so Michael Nyman’s spine-tingling music seems instantly familiar, while Ada’s silence puts the focus firmly on Hunter.
The decision to cast an actor with such a recognisable voice is inspired, and Hunter responds with unfakeable tactility – not only is that really her at the piano (Nyman composed to suit her playing style) but she co-created Ada’s memorably aggressive sign language.
It’s a sign of how spot-on Campion’s instincts were that she bagged Neill the same year he visited Jurassic Park and Keitel between career-rejuvenating gigs for Tarantino.
But the real acting legacy is newcomer Paquin, whose idiosyncratic, heartbreaking performance as hunter’s daughter raised the bar for child actors. Likewise for Campion, an inspirational figurehead for a generation of women directors.
Fittingly, the extras, including a commentary and lengthy interviews, mine her and producer Jan Chapman for every scrap of insight into how they did it.
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