Criterion Review: THE PIANO (1994)

A Jane Campion classic receives a lush and immersive new 4K restoration

In 1800s New Zealand, Ada (Oscar-winner Holly Hunter), a mute British single mother, is married off to stern, high-minded colonizing farmer Alisdair (Sam Neill). While she does communicate via sign language through her rambunctious young daughter, Flora (Oscar-winner Anna Paquin), Ada’s most beloved method of expression and escape is her piano. Ada manages to convey her deeply complex thoughts and feelings with every keystroke, but when the piano is abandoned on the beach where Ada and Flora disembark after their journey from Scotland, she is forcibly rendered silent once more. The piano, however, makes its way into the possession of Baines (Harvey Keitel), an Englishman who’s escaped his prison life (and the family outside it) for a life among the native Māori. Initially lusting after Ada, Baines proposes that she can visit her piano if he can engage in increasingly voyeuristic acts with her. However, Ada’s dedication towards her piano despite what she must do to access it sparks a change in the frontiersman—much to Alisdair’s increasing suspicion.

A film of tempestuous emotions amidst an equally volatile jungle landscape, The Piano is the quintessential Jane Campion film. Playing out almost like a lost Brontë novel, many of the characters find the decorum expected of them at odds with their repressed desires, often externalized by the ever-active natural world around them. Ada’s marriage to Alisdair feels as much of a thoughtless, expected conquest as his expanding farmland; he seeks to tame the rugged New Zealand jungles and foster an obedient, unquestioning wife because both are “just what’s done.” Hinted throughout, Alisdair’s acceptance of Ada’s muteness is as much self-serving as it is a performative kindness, as if the battle of earning Ada’s submission is half-won. Likewise, Baines also seeks to conquer Ada, utilizing her only means of self-expression and fulfillment as its own tool to win her heart and body. In short, Ada is seen very much as an object like anything else on the island, something to play like a piano or colonize like the land. Everyone’s interactions with her, though within the boundaries of propriety, are charged with brutish, caveman-like behavior.

Regardless of whether she was born with her condition or not, Ada’s silence is expected from a woman of her time. Though initially mistaken for compliance or reservation, Ada’s silence is her greatest weapon against these men. It allows her to barter with Baines and keep him at an emotional distance, thus forcing him to work through his primal urges and uncover something deeper and tender. It also creates an unshakable barrier between her and Alisdair, driving him mad that he can’t extract any sense of vulnerability from her and by extension a sense of defeat. In a true testament to Campion’s writing and direction, Ada’s enigmatic silence pulls in her audience’s rapt attention, and her unshakable resolution and grace inspire as much change in us as thet do with the men who seek to claim her.

Following her first two films, Sweetie and An Angel at My Table, The Piano is a welcome and powerful addition of Campion’s filmography to the Criterion Collection, featuring a long-awaited, stellar 4K restoration that allows first-time viewers and perpetual admirers to experience the film anew.


Criterion presents The Piano in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio in 4K Dolby Vision HDR on the UHD disc and in 1080p on the Blu-ray disc. The transfer is a new 4K transfer from the original 35mm A/B negative, with HDR color grading supervised by Campion and director of photography Stuart Dryburgh, using a 35mm print from the Academy Film Archive as a restoration and grading reference. The accompanying 5.1-Channel Surround English track was restored from the original 2-inch, 24-track magnetic track. Both English and English SDH subtitles are provided for the film, but not for the accompanying Special Features.

While The Piano has had several stellar transfers on home video, none have been as pervasive in detail as Criterion’s new 4K transfer. Reveling in the rich organic intricacies of Dryburgh’s cinematography, the disc’s picture tactfully preserves the minute, earthy textures throughout Campion’s film. Of particular note are scenes lit by candlelight, with a natural light-darkness gradient that organically blends; tiny bubbles that individually pockmark individuals’ faces underwater; and the woven threads on characters’ clothes that struggle to hold together when exposed to the elements or each other.

The accompanying Surround track lovingly layers the sounds of nature with the characters’ dialogue—so that no one moment, especially those where Ada stands her ground against Alisdair or Baines, is ever truly silent. Michael Nyman’s lush score also utilizes the sonic landscape well; you never quite know where the film’s orchestrations will pop out of next, creating an experience that, like the visuals, envelope and immerse the viewer in the world of the film.

Special Features:

Criterion’s package of The Piano includes a 4K UHD and Blu-ray disc, with all Special Features relegated to the Blu-ray disc save for the film’s audio commentary.

  • Audio Commentary from 2005 featuring Jane Campion and producer Jan Chapman.
  • Jane Campion: A new interview between writer-director Campion and film critic Amy Taubin, diving into the delicate balance of feminine and masculine energy that Campion has experimented with throughout her filmography.
  • Stuart Dryburgh, Andrew McAlpine, Waihoroi Shortland: New interviews with The Piano’s cinematographer, production designer, and Māori cultural adviser.
  • Holly Hunter: An archival interview with the star of The Piano on working with Campion, harkening from the days of Filmstruck.
  • The Piano At 25: Archival featurette featuring a conversation between Campion and Chapman.
  • Michael Nyman: An archival interview with the composer of The Piano.
  • Janet Patterson: Archival excerpts from an interview with the film’s costume designer.
  • Inside The Piano: Archival featurette featuring actors Holly Hunter, Sam Neill, and Harvey Keitel.
  • The Water Diary: A 2006 short film by Campion.
  • Theatrical Trailer for The Piano’s original release.
  • Pamphlet featuring an essay by film critic and festival programmer Carmen Gray.

The Piano is now available on 4K UHD and Blu-ray courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

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