Writer/director Jane Campion's third feature unearthed emotional undercurrents and churning intensity in the story of a mute woman's rebellion in the recently colonized New Zealand wilderness of Victorian times.
Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter), a mute who has willed herself not to speak, and her strong-willed young daughter Flora (Anna Paquin) find themselves in the New Zealand wilderness, with Ada the imported bride of dullard land-grabber Stewart (Sam Neill). Ada immediately takes a dislike to Stewart when he refuses to carry her beloved piano home with them.
But Stewart makes a deal with his overseer George Baines (Harvey Keitel) to take the piano off his hands. Attracted to Ada, Baines agrees to return the piano in exchange for a series of piano lessons that become a series of increasingly charged sexual encounters.
As pent-up emotions of rage and desire swirl around all three characters, the savage wilderness begins to consume the tiny European enclave.
Campion imbues her tale with an over-ripe tactility and a murky, poetic undertow that betray the characters' confined yet overpowering emotions: Ada's buried sensuality, Baines' hidden tenderness, and Stewart's suppressed anger and violence.
The story unfolds like a Greek tragedy of the Outback, complete with a Greek chorus of Maori tribesmen and a blithely uncaring natural environment that envelops the characters like an additional player.
Campion directs with discreet detachment, observing one character through the glances and squints of another as they peer through wooden slats, airy curtains, and the spaces between a character's fingers. She makes the film immediate and urgent by implicating the audience in characters' gazes.
And she guides Hunter to a revelatory performance of silent film majesty. Relying on expressive glances and using body language to convey her soulful depths, Hunter became a modern Lillian Gish and won an Oscar for her performance, as did Paquin and Campion for her screenplay.
Campion achieved something rare in contemporary cinema: a poetry of expression told in the form of an off-center melodrama.