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The central character in writer/director Jane Campion’s The Piano literally can’t speak for herself. But she doesn’t have to—she has a piano. It is easy to peg the mute heroine of Campion’s visually spectacular and thematically dense film as a metaphor for all 19th-century women who didn’t have a voice. This is clear from the start, when she is shipped by sea, like a package, to be claimed by a man she doesn’t know. But this elegantly articulate film is more than a feminist allegory, and silence, as its protagonist points out in a brief opening voice-over meant to represent her thoughts, “affects everyone in the end.”

An Irish widow, Ada (Holly Hunter) is sent by arrangement to New Zealand to wed a man that she has never met. She is subject to this marriage-market raw deal because she is a mute; Ada communicates by using a small pad and pencil she wears around her neck and an intricate system of hand signals that she shares with her young daughter (dialogue expressed in the latter way is subtitled in the film). Ada uses her piano as a vocal surrogate, playing with abandon so that she may give her emotions an aural dimension. And Hunter’s Ada is a marvel of wordless eloquence, capturing a breadth of emotion that eludes most actors with scripted lines.

Campion makes deft use of the visual both to tell her tale and to underscore its themes. When Ada and her daughter arrive on the New Zealand shore, for instance, there is no one on hand to greet them. After the rowboats that have transported them vanish in the distance, the two are left alone on a vast expanse of empty beach. Forced to improvise shelter, Ada constructs a tent by swathing her hoop skirt in petticoats. Illuminated from inside by an oil lamp, the makeshift enclosure glows in the evening darkness like a big Japanese lantern as Ada and her daughter sleep inside. The effect is a lovely one, and it’s clearly not accidental that Ada protects herself and her daughter by manipulating an encumbering article of feminine dress to serve utilitarian ends.

Like this lingerie-born sanctuary, virtually every detail of The Piano is rich with meaning. When Ada’s betrothed, Stewart (Sam Neill), arrives to fetch her, he refuses to carry her piano on the overland journey to his homestead. Later, he discovers her playing intently upon a replica of a piano keyboard that she has carved on a kitchen table. When he dismisses her activity by saying, “It’s not a piano—it doesn’t make any sound,” he is passing judgment on his bride as well. In The Piano, this kind of literal thinking marks a consequential lack of intellectual sophistication. In a neat turnabout, Stewart’s stubborn lack of imagination is mirrored by a show of excess credulity which occurs when a community play depicting the tale of Bluebeard is disrupted by Maori tribesmen who are unable to distinguish between the action onstage and reality.

It is receptiveness to what she expresses with her piano that ultimately attracts Ada to another settler, Baines (Harvey Keitel), even though his illiteracy narrows her options for communicating with him even further. Baines’ facial tattoos and unrestrained manner, contrasted with the formal dress and strait-laced propriety of the other members of the community, mark him as a man apart (likewise his ability to speak the native tongue, something that the other colonials eschew in favor of shouting in English at the Maori). Baines seems to have adapted to his wild new environment rather that engaging in futile efforts to make it conform to old standards. (This futility is best captured by the ritual of staging Ada and Stewart’s wedding photograph, a task undertaken in the pounding rain and ankle-deep mud in front of a soaked backdrop.)

The film captures literal landscapes as dexterously as it does emotional ones. More often than not, the two interact to amplify Campion’s themes. With a ubiquitous hum of flies in the background, Ada must move from place to place over narrow boards that bridge sucking, calf-deep mud. The Piano‘s dour palate of muted browns and grays serves to wordlessly convey Ada’s seeming prospects for happiness. And as often as they are gently compelling, the subjects of Campion’s lens are inherently dramatic, like the spectacle of the tide coming in and swallowing the Victorian furniture that sits incongruously on the otherwise deserted New Zealand beach.

Indeed, it is The Piano‘s untamed locale that fuels its action. Campion suggests that the wilderness territory is something of a brave new world for her heroine and its other settlers (after all, Ada’s name is only one letter away from Adam’s). It is certainly one where traditional behavior falls subject to sudden and radical improvisation. The level of emotionalism which comes to characterize the triangle between Ada, Stewart, and Baines is the very antithesis of the era’s defining propriety and control. This is thrown into relief when, during a passionate encounter, Ada takes off her clothes in a hurry—or tries to, before bogging down in a profusion of knots, buttons, and laces that seem placed there as if to deny the possibility of such feelings, much less their expedient expression.