Director Jane Campion explores the mind of a woman who is unable to speak and can only communicate through her young daughter Flora (Anna Paquin). Ada (Holly Hunter) expresses her emotions through the playing of her piano. An arranged marriage sends Ada and Flora to New Zealand to meet up with Ada’s new husband, Alisdair (Sam Neill). Ada finds herself attracted to a man named George Baines (Harvey Keitel), who is able to reach out to Ada and connect with her in a way she is unable to with her arranged husband.
Campion presents a haunting look into Ada’s psyche, and the world around her is a visual metaphor for the inner emotions Ada cannot express vocally.
Elements of the French story “Bluebeard” are incorporated into the film. Alisdair is Bluebeard, in that, after discovering that Ada was having an affair with Baines, forbids her to see him. Ada, obviously, is Bluebeard’s wife. When Ada defies Alisdair by taking a key from her beloved piano and inscribing on it her love for George, and then sending Flora to deliver the key, Alisdair punishes Ada by taking an axe and chopping off a finger, just as Bluebeard punished his wife after she discovered Bluebeard’s room containing the corpses of his former wives.
There are a number of characters who are from New Zealand’s native tribes, the Maori, in the film, and George Baines spends a lot of time with the Maori, even painting his face in the Maori tribal tradition. As with other elements of the film, the Maori represent the primal nature of Ada’s psyche, and her relationship with George is a way for her to get in touch with that nature of her psyche. Baines is also a liaison between Alisdair and his Maori workers, providing translation. If we continue with the psyche metaphor, we have two characters who act as vehicles for Ada’s voice: her daughter as a way to communicate literally to others, and Baines, who is indirectly an extension of Ada’s emotional state. In other words, Ada is able to use Baines as a way to communicate with her “husband” Alisdair and to let him know that he’s not going to bring out Ada’s passion, which will ultimately lead to her rediscovering her voice.
At the end of the film, when Ada leaves with Baines, she shoves her piano overboard, and in doing so is pulled underwater when some rope attached to the piano latches onto her legs. Ada is dragged down into the water, but she does free herself and is able to resurface. Ada can push the piano overboard because she no longer needs it; she can express her passion and emotion to Baines without it. Ada’s piano had been of great importance to her, because of the repression of her emotions, and it was the only way for her to express herself.
Why did Campion choose the New Zealand landscape as a backdrop to the film? I believe the main reason is simply that the landscape is an extension of Ada’s mind, the scenery acting as visual metaphors. Much of what we see is a muddy forest environment, trees and branches old and in disarray, showing us what her reaction is to being sent to an arranged marriage with a man she has no passion for. The ocean probably is the best visual metaphor for what is going on in Ada’s mind, being washed ashore in the beginning, unsure of what is going to happen to her and her daughter, while in the end, being a place of metaphorical death and rebirth. When Ada frees herself from the piano that had nearly killed her, she is essentially reborn as a new person, one who is able to express herself and her passion without the need for her piano.