Hunter and Neill endure a joyless marriage. Meanwhile, Neill's overseer, Harvey Keitel, nurtures an obsession with Hunter. He schemes to purchase Hunter's piano, moves it into his house, and arranges for Hunter to give him piano lessons. But he makes it plain to Hunter that his interest is in her and not the piano. He offers to return the piano to Hunter in exchange for sexual favors. Hunter agrees, but tattle-tale Paquin informs Neill, whose dark side then surfaces.
How others will see it. The story is a love triangle set in Victorian times in an exotic land. It stars a beautiful young woman and her adorable, precocious preteen daughter. Two men love her. One wants her obedience. The other wants her love. These elements are familiar, but there is also novelty. The lead character is both mute and eccentric.
The Piano, then, is designed for maximum appeal to educated thirtysomething women, who are most likely to identify with Hunter's character. Like most art films, the film is often strange, but this is unlikely to alienate many viewers. However, those who require action need not apply.
The Piano was roundly acclaimed by critics, and was also a box office success. Holly Hunter won Best Actress from multiple film academies, including those of the United States, Britain, and Australia. Also benefitting was young Anna Paquin, who became the second youngest Oscar winner as Best Supporting Actress.
The Piano could have been a breakthrough film for Jane Campion, but her follow-ups were not well received. Whatever Campion's talents as a director and writer, much of the success of The Piano was due to impeccable casting, costumes, and cinematography. She has been unable to replicate her one triumph.
How I felt about it. It must rain a lot in New Zealand. Many dramatic scenes occur in the rain. These presumably spoil Hunter's fancy clothes, which favor the camera but are unsuitable for New Zealand's jungle climate.
Hunter never really consummates her marriage with Neill. At least twice, she tries to seduce him, by fondling his body. This sensation is too powerful for him, and he cuts her off. He can't love her in the way she demands, with the spirit. She isn't practical, which means she can't be a partner. He sees her as a possession to bargain for, purchase, and ultimately cast off. Like Bluebeard in the play, he metes out extreme punishment for disobedience.
Keitel, on the other hand, loves Hunter in the spiritual manner that she requires. He breaks down her formidable resistance in layers, which distinguishes him from the unreflective Neill. In successive 'lessons', Keitel earns the right to stare at her, to touch her, to remove her clothing, et cetera. This game is secret fun for Hunter, although she maintains a chaste pretense.
Once the piano is hers, the pretense is gone, but she wants to remain his lover. This shows that the intensity of feeling is much more important to her than the security of a stillborn marriage. It also shows that she is willing to damage her relationship with her own daughter in order to maintain her affair with Keitel.