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The Piano
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135 of 145 people found the following review helpful
on August 9, 2002
Jane Campion's "The Piano" does what many truly great films do: It inspires fascinating discussion and provokes mixed reactions. The male friend with whom I saw it back in 1993 and I were so enthralled that we kept our significant others waiting to leave for our respective Christmas vacations because we kept phoning each other to discuss symbolism and interesting themes in the movie. While I continue to absolutely love the film, I also recognize why some viewers have not shared my reaction. Perhaps you have to have at least considered a forbidden love affair or perhaps you have to have found yourself trapped in a relationship where you feel you have lost your voice to appreciate what Campion explores.
The story centers around Ada (Holly Hunter in an Oscar-winning performance) and her daughter, Flora (Anna Paquin--who also won an Oscar for her extraordinary performance). They leave their upper-class home in Scotland after Ada's father (apparently) arranges her marriage. Ada, who has willed herself not to speak since age 6, expresses herself through her beloved piano.
The true story of who fathered Flora is never revealed in the movie, but the context suggests that she is Ada's illegimate child born from an illicit affair. The hinted-at story of Flora's conception provides a key to understanding both why Ada later begins an affair with her New Zealand neighbor Baines (Harvey Keitel) and why she makes a mail-order marriage in the first place. I suspect that Ada's aging father may have wanted to see her settled--preferably far away so that her unconventional behavior would no longer be a source of social embarassment--and given Ada's muteness and out-of-wedlock child, her father probably couldn't find a suitable suitor in mid-Victorian Scotland.
Stewart (Sam Neill) first encounters his future wife on a lonesome gray beach surrounded by her crated belongings. His Maori porters begin carrying many household items up the muddy path to his dreary homestead. But Stewart refuses to bring the piano along, despite Ada's apparent distress and Flora's pleas that her mother MUST have her piano.
Ada's piano, abandoned on the barren New Zealand beach, captures the sense of what 19th century colonial life might have been like for too many women--treasured possessions, the last ties to "civilization" left behind.
Rendered voiceless without her piano, Ada begs Stewart to return for her instrument through notes and more pleas from Flora. Finally she persuades Baines--a colonist whose tattoed face evidences the extent to which he has "gone native" and who is considered less civilized by his neighbors--to guide her back to the beach. Ada comes to life again as she, at last, gets to play. Drawn by her passion for the piano, Baines arranges with Stewart to trade land for the piano. Without consulting his wife, Stewart assures him that Ada will provide lessons too.
During first of these lessons, Ada strikes her own bargain with Baines, whom she still considers a boor: She will trade sexual favors to earn back her piano, one key at a time. Ultimately, her reluctant bargain grows into full-blown love and passion. The dark, brooding tone of "The Piano," however, suggests that something in this situation will go tragically, and probably violently, wrong.
Campion has filled her movie with haunting piano music (actually played by Hunter) and intriguing imagery. The metaphor of piano as voice and losing and regaining one's voice, Flora's role in changing her mother's fate, the question of whether Ada's bargain reflects a woman taking control of her life or just being victimized in a different way, and many other complexities make this a movie worth watching again and again and again.
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77 of 83 people found the following review helpful
on September 16, 2003
I missed this movie in the theaters 10 years ago, and saw it for the first time purely by chance on HBO recently. I was so enchanted that I watched each of the next three showings in the very same day, and then bought the DVD for my collection. It is one of the most unique, truly deep, thought provoking, awe-inspiring, movies I've seen in a while. The drama is almost Biblical, the love story almost Shakespearian in quality (think Othello). I was enraptured by the music, the crashing waves, and the amazing synergy between the players.
And Harvey Keitel - who knew? Those gangster/tough guy roles just don't even touch this man's talent. George Baines is intense, tender, passionate, a total jerk - so it would seem - but underneath the gruff exterior lies the heart of a prince. Keitel really puts it all out there, literally and figuratively. It's a risky role and it works for him.
Holly Hunter was spectacular, as usual, but in this film the fast-talking, high-energy woman you came to know in "Broadcast News" or "Texas Cheerleader Murdering Mom" must dig deep. Ada's silences surpass powerful, she conveys more with her facial expressions than most people say out loud in a lifetime. Speech is clearly an overrated and overused form of communication. Ada's will is almost a character onto itself. And one can see clearly that no one is more surprised by her emerging emotions and unfolding events than she.
Sam Neill's character is sad, broken, pathetic, frightening, and your basic worst nightmare all at once. Jealousy is indeed and ugly and and devastating emotion.
I disagree with a few of the other reviewers about Anna Paquin's character, Flora. Some saw Flora as innocent. Watch closely. She's diabolical, almost schizophrenic. She has the wide-eyed, innocent visage of a pathological liar. Note the scene with the photograph, the dog under the porch, her conversations with the other women in the village (where you begin to see her turn on her mother as she realizes that she's being replaced as the center of her mother's universe) and when her final act of betrayal results in horrific violence (don't think for a second that she didn't know what she was doing), then note her repentence, and subsequent absolution (the soiled angel wings in the river), and her redemption. Miss Paquin could never be considered a "child star" she's already shown more maturity than many adults in film today.
And of course, the Piano, the center of it all, Ada's voice, the music in this movie is so moving and expressive, so perfect for each scene. My next purchase is the soundtrack.
In sum, heart-achingly beautiful, devastatingly real and dream-like all at once. I highly recommend.
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68 of 73 people found the following review helpful
I saw this movie when it first came out in theaters in 93 and it has continued to haunt me ever since. Watching it again last night, I realized once more what a wonderful movie it is--rich in symbolism, character, excellent acting, and a story so deep and beautiful it won't leave your brain.

Many reviewers have given a plot synopsis but I want to talk about the way the piano itself is used in the movie. It is a beautiful instrument and from the start of the movie we can see that Ada loves it. We soon see why she is so attached to it--it is literally her voice since she has not spoken since the age of 6. When she and her daughter are dumped on the shores of New Zealand, her new husband refuses to acknowlege her need to have the piano with her. He leaves it behind despite her pleas that they take it rather than her clothes or household goods. There is a very poingnanant scene with Ada standing on a cliff and looking out to the beach at the piano with such longing in her eyes. It is clear she is leaving a part of herself behind--perhaps the most important part and yet her oaf of a husband completely misses it.

It is Bains, the neighbor and friend of Ada's husband who finally grasps the significance of the piano. At Ada's insistance, he takes her and her daughter back to the beach so she can play her beloved piano and 'speak' for the first time in days. You can see by the way her face lightens from the harsh mask it has been through most of the movie so far how much this means to Ada. She actually smiles and her movments lose their stiffness and become flowing as she lets the music move through her, saying things impossible to express through words. Bains displays a quality here that Ada's husband has little of--patience. He stays on the beach and listens to Ada play most of the day. There is another interesting piece of symbolism at the end of this scene where Ada walks in the wet sand, leaving her footprints behind. Her daughter runs to join her, walking in the same set of footprints and after a moment's hesitation, Bains also follows, adding his footprints to hers and making the track a single one--forshadowing the end of the film in which the three of them will form a family.

After hearing Ada play, Bains is captivated by her. He arranges with her lunk of a husband to buy the piano and Ada is forced to give him lessons. At first she has nothing but contempt for Bains whom she considers ignorant because he can't read but after they strike their bargain--1 black key on the piano keyboard for one sexual favor in order for Ada to earn her piano back--she gradually begins to see him in another light.

Much has been made in other reviews of the fact that Bains proposes such a bargain to Ada in the first place. But this is not the act of a man bent solely on gratuitous sexual gratification--rather it is the only way Bains can think of to make Ada his--to bring the elusive and aloof woman down to his level so he can love her and give her a chance to love him. Throughout the movie it is clear that Bains is deeply moved by every aspect of Ada--the way she looks, the way she expresses herself through music, the play of muscles under her skin as she 'speaks' through the piano, even her scent. And it is clear that he understands the significance of the piano because he treats it as an extension of Ada herself. In one evocative scene, he takes off his clothes and uses them to polish the richly carved wood of the instrument after Ada has gone. He touches the piano with reverence and love, using the same gestures that he later uses with Ada herself when he caresses her body.

I must digress here to say that many reviewers have commented on the full frontal nudity of both Ada (Holly Hunter) and Bains (Harvey Keitel) in the movie. Some people seem to think it is gratuitous but I really liked it because I felt it added to the symbolic quality of the film. Bains looks like you might expect a New Zealand farmer to look--his body is hard and deeply tanned from working in the sun--he is everything that is rough and rugged and masculine. In contrast, Ada is pale and fragile looking--everything soft and feminine and when she does finally yield to Bains with her whole heart, the differnces between them combine to make a deeply sensual scene.

It is in the love scene that we first see the beginning of the end of the piano. Ada, who hasn't spoken a word out loud since she was 6, says something we can't quite catch while she and Bains are making love. Bains doesn't quite catch it either but he urges her to 'whisper it' in his ear which she does. Now that Bains has unlocked her voice, we can see that the piano is going to become obsolete. And in fact, at the end of the film when she and her daughter are leaving via canoe with Bains, Ada orders that it be pushed overboard. The piano now symbolizes her old life, a life she wants to leave behind forever. But it almost takes her with it--she nearly drowns with her piano when her foot catches in the ropes that bind it. She struggles free at the last moment as much to her own surprise. She is surprised that her will has chosen to live rather than to die with the piano which now symbolises the stagnant life she is leaving behind.

At the end of the film we see Ada learning to speak. Though she still plays the piano, it is no longer her sole means of communication. She has grown from a cold, silent woman to a warm and loving one, the change fostered by Bains' love and understanding. He has helped her find her true voice and let go of her past though in her dreams she still sees herself tied to the piano which rests at the bottom of the ocean. Perhaps she sees the part of herself she had to leave behind in order to grow and find true happiness and self fulfillment.

The Piano is a moving and beautiful film, one of my top five favorties of all time. I can't say enough about this lovely movie. Rent or buy it today and see what I mean.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on February 9, 2012
Like the previous blu ray from AU a few years ago, this one too omits the essential subtitles from Ada's sign language to her daughter about her relationship and the Maori's dialogue. It makes no sense that they missed these important parts of the film.
Unlike other criticisms, though, I think the print is actually very good. Some of it is grainy, but this was filmed with many dark scenes and in the jungle, and I don't recall it being much different in the movie theater. The color is great and the sound is great.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on February 15, 2012
This blu ray does not include subtitles which existed in the theatrical release. Maori dialogue remains untranslated; idiosyncratic sign language is likewise left for you to decipher on your own. Because of this appalling oversight, the emotional weight of the film is greatly reduced. Do not buy this truncated version of the film. It is extremely disappointing.
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21 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on February 10, 2012
I feel this is a great masterpiece of a film which is mistakenly missing the subtitles, so if you can't interpret the main character's sign language or if you don't speak the tongue of the New Zealand natives then you're going to have a problem with this Lion's Gate release. A few other reviews posted here are calling the blu-ray release inferior due to picture quality issues which I don't understand one bit. Sure, there are some low-lit scenes which appear grainy but that is simply the nature of celluloid. Even the master print will show that.

Point is, I wish I could return this copy in exchange for a corrected version. Is someone at Lion's Gate Studio listening...or do they even care to fix the problem? I'm going to try returning my copy for a refund.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on March 19, 2004
I just got my copy from Amazon and what a disappointment. The Piano is one of my favorite films and living in Quebec I had a hard time finding the widescreen version of the film. Imagine my joy to find it, finally, here on Amazon. However, having got it, and looked at it, I realize that the picture is a scan from one of the theatrical copies - it is full of dust (black specks that appear all over the image. In a day and age where even the cheapest DVD's are cleaned in post-production it is an outrage to see such a beautiful film with dust all over it. I wish they'd do another transfer from the original negative. Furthermore the widescreen - although considered wide is actually a 3:4 image letterboxed - it is not a real 16:9 widescreen transfer - meaning that you will have a lot fewer lines of image than you would have if it had been transferred anamorphic - For DVD lovers this is really a disappointment - and only 2.0 surround. If you love the film enough to live with these disappointments - I actually do - get the film. If you prefer pristine images and great sound - you'll be disappointed.
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21 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on February 7, 2012
The recent Lions Gate release is terrible. Bare bones, muddy transfer, and missing subtitles that were present on the original Artisan DVD - subtitles which are essential to the story, I might add. I was appalled. I'm sending it back this week. I cannot wait for Criterion to give us a proper release of this classic film. I would encourage all fans of the film to stay away from this Lions Gate release.
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37 of 47 people found the following review helpful
TOP 1000 REVIEWERon March 15, 2004
THE PIANO is a very unusual, enigmatic and haunting film. To say anything less would be incredulous. It is a story set in some remote coastal hills of a very bleak eighteenth century New Zealand overrun by dense jungle, mud, the elements and crude natives. Ada (Holly Hunter) and her young mischievously meddlesome daughter Flora (Anna Paquin) arrive on the New Zealand beach to meet Stewart (Sam Neill) whom has arranged to marry Ada. Ada, as we discover in the prolog is a woman who has not spoken since she was 6 years old. She is not only mute but strangely introverted and repressed. A piano, which Ada has brought with her, is her only means of expression. The ex-seaman ex-whaler Baines (Harvey Keitel) is a rather crude looking character who becomes enchanted by Ada's piano, which has been left on the beach. He retrieves it, buys it and then has Ada barter for its return setting the conflict of personalities and their repressed feelings into motion. Ada's mute playing of the piano is juxtaposed by her piercing dark eyes focusing from her face shrouded in ever so pale white skin. Her looks are riveting and disturbing. The image of Paquin's face is unnerving. As the film progresses we see that the primary characters are truly misunderstood from what our initial impressions had ascertained them to be. This is an exceptional film that you have to watch and listen to closely because of its very subtle nature that envelops your senses. The characters and the actors that portray them are brilliantly presented. Stuart Dryburgh's cinematography is equally important because the images on the screen take on a life and spirit of their own in this haunting film.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on January 29, 2003
This is a hauntingly somber movie, and that's precisely why I enjoyed it so much. This movie contained the entire package that, when delivered, evokes a reaction that is sure to stay with the viewer long after the end credits are shown.
In the style of the classic novel "The Scarlet Letter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne, this movie is the story of a single mother named Ada (Holly Hunter) who comes to New Zealand with her daughter, Flora (Anna Paquin), in order to meet a local farmer named Stewart (Sam Neill) who has arranged to marry her. They come with their belongings, none more sentimentally valuable than Ada's piano. However, reasoning that it is Ada's duty to make sacrifices in the interest of the family, Stewart trades the piano to a neighbor named Baines (Harvey Keitel) for the rights to some farming land. Little does Stewart realize that Baines knows exactly how precious this piano is to Ada, and he makes this trade in an attempt to make a play on her affections. Stewart arranges for Ada to go over to Baines' house and teach him to play the very piano that belonged to her. Ada and Baines work out an arrangement where in lieu of teaching Baines how to play the paino, she will instead play the piano for him and allow him to use her in order to fulfill his carnal fantasies. In exchange, Baines will eventually give the piano back to Ada. As time goes by, Ada goes as far as sleeping with Baines in order to work off the debt she owes him for her piano, but after a while, Ada's trysts with Baines are no longer for the sake of earning her piano back, but are voluntary. She develops feelings for Baines, much to the chagrin of her husband, who locks Ada and Flora up in their house in order to prevent them from going to Baines' house.
There were some brilliant performances in this movie. Though Anna Paquin's character only plays a small part in moving the story along, her screen presence is extraordinary. She was one of the youngest actors to ever win the Academy Award, and her Oscar was much deserved. Holly Hunter also won an Oscar for this movie, and it, too, was well deserved, especially considering the fact that she didn't utter a single word for the entire movie. The strength of her performance relied solely on her acting ability, and could not be assisted with the influence that there voice might have carried. Of the males in this movie, Harvey Keitel does a sold job as a rather homely farmer, but the real credit must go to Sam Neill as Ada's husband. The tantrums that he throws are very realistic and incredibly compelling.
Also worthy of mention is the movie's incredible art direction and cinematography. The entire movie takes place in a gloomy beachfront and forest. The lack of sunshine and sheer dismalness complements the haunting performances and plot.
I would have given the movie a 5 star rating, but I wasn't satisfied with the ending. Though I won't tell you which of the two men Ada ends up choosing, it's my opinion that both men were scummy, and neither deserved her. But you can draw your own conclusion. This is an excellent movie, and I highly recommend seeing it.
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