The time is the 1850s. Ada is a young woman who experienced some unspecified childhood trauma and ceased speaking at age 6, has lived as a mute ever since, had some sort of dalliance with a teacher who left her pregnant, and is now raising a daughter as a single mother, though evidently still living with or supported by her family. She communicates through sign language, which her daughter also knows fluently, routinely acting as her mother’s translator. She is something of a piano prodigy, and it is through her beloved piano that she truly expresses herself.
A marriage is arranged for her—clearly without her consent or approval—to a wealthy New Zealand landowner named Alisdair Stewart. So she is shipped off to New Zealand, where she, her daughter, and their belongings including her piano are unceremoniously dumped on an isolated beach to await the arrival of her new husband, which doesn’t happen until the next day.
Stewart is accompanied by a work crew of Maoris, as well as another European named George Baines. I have seen Baines described in summaries of the movie as either a neighbor, or an employee of Stewart’s. My impression is that he’s a neighboring smaller landowner, and that he sometimes helps Stewart with certain chores like this, presumably for pay.
Stewart takes Ada and her daughter and their stuff on the long journey back home with him, but much to Ada’s consternation he leaves the piano behind, on the grounds either that there isn’t enough room in their house (unlikely, since he’s a rich guy with loads of live-in servants and such) or that they don’t have enough workers to carry everything.
Ada does not settle in comfortably. She is aloof with everyone, still refuses to talk, and rarely indulges in as much as a minimal smile. She shows some modest warmth in one-to-one interactions with her daughter, but that’s about it. She is especially cold toward her new husband, who for the most part responds with a kind of meek patience and understanding, basically letting her know that he’s interested in making her happy and being a family and sharing affection with her when she’s ready, but not pushing her. The implication is that the marriage is not consummated, and that really there’s no even lesser intimacy between them.
Meanwhile, early in her time in New Zealand Ada—through her daughter; she’s still not speaking—implores Baines to help her get her piano, where it is still sitting abandoned on the beach. Baines is initially not cooperative, but eventually she prevails upon him and they travel to the beach together. She plays the piano. Hearing how expertly she plays, and seeing how she seems transformed by doing so has a powerful emotional effect on Baines.
He decides that she and her piano playing is something he craves in his life. He arranges with Stewart that he will give him a certain piece of land in exchange for the piano and for Ada coming to his house and giving him lessons. Ada is none too thrilled at this, as she wants the piano home with her, but she accepts that at least it’s better than it being stuck at the faraway beach.
It’s not really “lessons” per se that he wants, though. He just wants to listen and appreciate her playing. It even takes on a sort of erotic quality for him. Soon he proposes—and Ada agrees after only surprisingly brief resistance—that after a certain number of her visits the piano will be hers to take back with her, but that during those visits he be allowed to take certain liberties with her as she plays.
Mostly these are quite tame—an occasional caress, some alteration in her clothing (such that instead of being 95% covered up by the goofy old-fashioned 19th century costumes she is 80% covered up), etc.—though they do escalate.
It becomes clear, if it hasn’t always been, that he’s not just looking for some kind of cheap thrills but is genuinely smitten with her, feelings which she may or may not reciprocate. Indeed, eventually he becomes dissatisfied with their arrangement, complaining that it’s too much like prostitution and that he really only desires anything from her if she freely wants to give it to him because she too has feelings for him.
Things do not improve between Ada and Stewart. Mostly he still is trying to be nice and not force anything from her, but ultimately they clash over her involvement with Baines. For her part she remains cold toward him in her silence. If anything she makes it worse by eventually initiating a new practice of coming to him at night (they sleep in separate rooms) and touching him and gently caressing him for the first time, only to always withdraw as soon as he heats up at all. In other words, she’s teasing him.
The Piano is well done and held my interest reasonably well. Ada, Stewart, and Baines are compelling characters, and their relationships are intriguing. It’s mostly a slow, languorous film, but that’s fine because it has enough emotional and moral depth to pull that off.
OK, here are some of the thoughts I’m left with:
I understand that Ada is in a difficult, unjust position—more on that below—but whatever sympathy I may have felt for her, I also found her frankly annoying. The whole refusing to talk thing just comes across as childish—very much an “I’m going to hold my breath until I turn blue” kind of behavior. She spends the whole movie scowling and acting too superior to interact with anyone. When a character shows some warmth, some kindness, some affection toward her, she refuses to budge from her petulant child pose—with her daughter and eventually Baines being partial exceptions, though she certainly makes the latter work for it.
It’s also kind of creepy—though certainly not surprising—that she is unreceptive to the point of cruelty with Stewart when he is nice to her and gives her plenty of space and such, while ultimately being drawn to the more assertive, earthy Baines, who pushes her for a lot more. It’s the classic “nice guys are boring and vaguely effeminate, whereas manly men who take what they want are intriguing and sexy” reaction that in so many ways encourages some of the worst traits in guys.
But I think a lot of what the movie wants us to focus on is the inherent sexist injustice of the situation she’s in. She lives in a time when as a woman her autonomy is so disvalued that she can in effect be sold to a guy, sent to another continent, and have no say in it. In some ways she’s treated kindly by her husband, but it’s the magnanimous treatment by a master of a servant or slave. He often manifests patience and consideration toward her, an awkward kind of deference even, but it’s in the context of an unequal relationship where ultimately he calls the shots, whether on the matter of the fate of her piano or anything else.
Their marital relationship raises moral issues with obvious modern parallels, specifically the tension between judging people solely on what they do as individuals versus reacting to them for the role they occupy in unjust systems.
It’s the whole matter of “institutional” racism and sexism. White males get understandably prickly about what they feel are unjustifiably blanket condemnations of them based on race and gender, protesting that they as individuals harbor no belief in white or male superiority, and do not hate or mistreat minorities or women. Often this just makes minorities and women even more indignant and disgusted about how such people “just don’t get it,” and are so blind to their “privilege.”
Think of it in terms of Stewart. If he forced himself sexually on his wife, relative to the prevailing standards of human behavior in his time and place he would not be guilty of rape in a legal sense, nor even be regarded as having violated any moral rights of Ada’s. But he refrains from doing so because he only wants to be intimate with her if and when she is ready for it and wants that kind of relationship with him (which, if you think about it, is quite similar to Baines’s eventual attitude toward her).
So does he deserve brownie points for showing that kind of respect for her when he could easily get away with not doing so? Well, maybe he does if you’re grading on a curve and comparing him to all the other men in history who bought wives. But the system they live under has presented him with an opportunity where, even if he doesn’t force himself on her physically, he largely controls her life, he has her as a captive audience while he tries to win her over, her prospects for choosing any other mate are greatly limited, and she is financially and otherwise dependent on him.
He has benefited from this system, and he hasn’t objected to it and renounced any privileges it affords him. If you judge him in those terms (which, it’s worth noting is a very high standard—the number of people in any system who forego all the benefits it provides them if they are morally dubious in any way is nearly zero), then condemnation is a lot more appropriate.
On a gut level I responded negatively to her being such a cold bitch toward him, as he behaves as such a nice guy for most of the movie. But then if I think of her reaction instead as not being directed toward him as an individual, but more toward what he represents in the overall circumstances that she’s rightly indignant about, it’s easier to respect her behavior.
So on the one hand, there’s something problematic and perhaps unfair about punishing individuals for being members of groups that are in one way or another privileged in a given unjust system, but on the other hand it’s justified to be furious about that injustice, and it’s hard to avoid that fury being directed at individuals in some manner.
I suspect that Ada’s preference for Baines over Stewart is more of an animalistic thing rather than some conscious intellectual choice, but if you wanted to analyze it in more political terms, you could theorize that while Baines too is in effect able to buy her favors due to certain gender-based advantages he has in social and financial resources, her ultimately giving herself to him and not to her husband constitutes her seizing at least the very limited autonomy of being the one who gets to decide whom she is to be sold to. So I suppose in that sense she’s making the more feminist choice (though if she wanted to truly be feminist I expect she’d tell them both to go to the Devil and take up with one of the servant girls in a lesbian relationship instead).
In the end I felt a comparable empathy for all three main characters, rather than seeing her as the sympathetic victim, Stewart as the villain, and Baines as somewhere in between. Superficially, I found her the most immature and annoying, but stepping back and assessing them in their social context, I see them all as flawed people with some good points and some bad points who are doing the best they can in a very imperfect world with whatever they have to work with.
I wouldn’t rank The Piano real high relative to all the films I’ve written about thus far, but I’d place it no worse than around the middle.