The Piano

Australia, France and New Zealand, 1993

Film On display

Music envelops the audience from the first scene of Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993). The acclaimed score by Michael Nyman acts as an extension of Holly Hunter’s character, Ada McGrath. Though Ada never speaks, her treasured piano clearly expresses her emotions, opinions and ideas. Sound defines her character.

The piano itself dates from 1825–30 and was shipped to the New Zealand filming location from London. Two replicas were made – a lightweight version that could be carried through the bush for the opening scene at Karekare beach, and one with a steel frame for underwater scenes.

Curator Notes

Jane Campion explores romance, heartache, longing and jealousy in 19th-century period film The Piano, which follows main character Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter), a Scottish pianist who is married off to New Zealand frontiersman Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill). It's not until Ada and her daughter Flora’s arrival from Scotland that Stewart realises that Ada is mute, or that she is fiercely independent, fearless and headstrong. It's not a happy coupling.

While some of Ada’s thoughts are revealed to the audience through voice overs, which begin and end the film, most of her emotions and opinions are expressed through actor Holly Hunter’s evocative and striking physicality – her arresting gaze as she appears to look deep into the souls of those around her, including the audience. Flora also aids by translating the sign language of their own invention. Ada’s hands often moving vigorously to express herself. Yet it is her connection with her piano that is truly able to communicate her inner most thoughts, her piano that conveys her true desires clearly. The film’s musical score is therefore closely woven into Ada’s character and as it was created before shooting began, aided Hunter in development of Ada’s character. Composed by Michael Nyman in close collaboration with Campion, the score reflects Ada inner world. In the film’s final scenes her piano once so cherished is dramatically thrown out to sea signalling her journey towards of finding her own voice.

– Curator Chelsey O'Brien

As (Ada) can't speak, she formulates an emotional world by composing music. I had to work out how she, a mid-19th-century woman, would do this. For a male composer with a history of minimalist writing at the end of the 20th century, finding that voice didn't come easily.” – Michael Nyman, 2012

Holly Hunter winning an Oscar® for "The Piano" via the Oscars YouTube channel.

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On display until

16 February 2031

ACMI: Gallery 1



Jane Campion

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The Story of the Moving Image → Moving Pictures → MI-05. Sound and Colour → MI-05-C04


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