"And the piano, it sounds like a carnival, and the microphone smells like a beer, and they sit at the bar and put bread in my jar, saying 'Man, what are you doing here?'" That song is a masterpiece of lyricism, but this film's title, on the hand, is a touch lazy I feel, so the film itself better be good, and sure enough, it is, as the critical and commercial reception will most certainly tell you. Well, I reckon New Zealand doesn't need "The Lord of the Rings" to meet cinematic success, but evidently doesn't do Harvey Keitel as many favors as he was hoping for, because after this film, we didn't really see a whole lot of him, and he was a pretty big star. Forget you, Holly Hunter, because we should be worrying less about "saving Grace" and see if we can't save Harvey, as the man is quite the talent, like Anna Paquin, apparently. At 11 years old, Paquin became the second-youngest person to ever win an Academy Award, ever, mainly just for being about as cute as her funky-looking little self can get, and also one year after this film's release, Leonardo DiCaprio's impossible performance in "Gilbert Grape", whether it be because of his being less than 20 at the time or simply because the Oscars have always hated DiCaprio for some reason, loses all of its very much earned accolades to Tommy Lee Jones for playing Tommy Lee Jones and doing pretty much nothing else outside of that in "The Fugitive"? Well, that's annoying, but hey, 1993 was quite a year in overrating, as reflected by "Schindler's List" (Hey, I really liked it, but I still lay awake some nights waiting for a Jewish critic to jump out of nowhere and strangle me for not thinking that it's one of the greatest films ever made), as well as by this film. No, I like this film as surely as I liked "Schindler's List", it's just that, like "Schindler's List", this film has a couple of shortcomings that they don't really talk about.
There's really not a whole lot to say with a drama of this type, and what little there is to say is generally delivered adequately, though in some cases, expository depth stands to be more played up, as there are some holes in characterization that, if filled, would have made this character drama more well-rounded, rather than undercooked. Sure, underdevelopment is a relatively minor issue, but what feels watered down is typically something that probably should be more fleshed out, thus resulting in a bit of an emotional distance that is, of course, widened by atmospheric cold spells, which are rarely dull, but have their dull occasions to break up a consistent degree of bland limpness that proves to be all too reflective of the limpness in the structure of this story. Not only does her atmospheric storytelling meander a bit, but Jane Campion's script gets to be pretty fatty around the edges, with excess material and filler that, as usual, get to be repetitious, which would be fine and all if there wasn't so much room for tightness that, if explored, would fend off the aimlessness which ends up being recurring enough to serve as a driving force for this film's narrative. There's certainly direction to this character drama, but there's so much steadiness to the unraveling of this plot that focus kind of thins out a bit after a while, thanks to aimlessness spawned from excessiveness, which leave you plenty of time to think about the shortcomings that this film could never entirely do away with. As much as I complain about how undercooked and bloated this film is at times, pacing issues aren't as severe as I make them sound, being considerable problems, sure, but not so much so that they threaten the final product's reward value in the long run, so what really does as much damage as anything to this film is the plot's simply having only so much weight to it, for although this drama deals with some strong themes which are, more often than not, done justice by inspiration in storytelling, so much is pretty minimalist. Limitations in punch to this story concept soften the ground on which the final product's compellingness stands, never to be shaken into underwhelmingness, but certainly to be challenged by natural shortcomings that, when emphasized by expository shortcomings and aimless spells that are exacerbated by atmospheric cold spells, hold back a fair bit of what potential there is. Of course, if there are moments in which potential is held so far back that underwhelmingness ensues, then you could very well miss them upon blinking, because for every shortcoming this film faces, it delivers on, perhaps even excels in enough compensation to keep your investment secured.
Seeing as how this period piece's scope is minimalist, there's not much room for art director Gregory P. Keen, alongside production designer Andrew McAlpine and costume designer Janet Patterson, to really flesh out the look of this era, but they make their opportunities to handsomely restore 1850s New Zealand count, subtly immersing you in the environment with convincing designs that, in certain cases, look rather attractive, perhaps because they go embellished by cinematography - courtesy of Stuart Dryburgh - that, while not outstanding, has a certain distinct ruggedness to it that sometimes commands your attention. Visually, the film is appealing, but quite frankly, there's only so much to praise about this film's production value and photographic sharpness, so the real standout within this artistic aspects of this film is, of course, Michael Nyman's breathtaking minimalist score, whose tenderness and classical soul power many aspects of the film's atmosphere, often entertainingly, and sometimes resonantly. Nyman's beautiful efforts really fit with the heart and soul of this drama, and there's no seeing, or rather, this film without it, even if it is a bit unevenly used, yet the effectiveness of this drama cannot be fully supported by its soulful musical value. The film has style, to be sure, but it's the substance that carries the final product every bit as much as it holds the final product back, for although this story concept is a bit too minimalist for its own good, it's poignant and refreshing, with a human thoughtfulness that give this film the opportunity to be the tenderly effective drama that it ultimately is, largely thanks to Jane Campion's inspired directorial atmosphere, which has plenty of cold spells, sure, but is rarely so cold that it's utterly disengaging, and is often clever enough in what it chooses to meditate upon with a heartfelt thoughtfulness to draw compellingness, maybe even resonance. Campion's steady approach to this minimalist drama is problematic at times, but is generally very charming, and with such charm being backed by enough competence to do ambition justice, you end up with very endearing storytelling that challenges underwhelmingness more than the shortcomings challenge compellingness, which is perhaps most anchored by the inspiration found on the screen. I don't know if I would say that this film is quite as well-acted as they say, but it is still very well-acted, with a young Anna Paquin being cute and sometimes effective in her nailing, not just a Scottish accent, but the simplicity and sense of responsibility that face children who may very well be too young to be a caretaker for a disabled parent, particularly when situations get to be too heavy for a child to handle, while Harvey Keitel and Sam Neill compel in their convincing portrayals of a simple, yet unpredictable man with a good heart and great flaws, and a man who comes to feel unloved and even betrayed by a woman he feels affection for, respectively, and leading lady Holly Hunter steals the show, because, as a portrayer of a mute, her performance is driven by expressiveness that she pumps with enough dramatic power and commitment to convince you both of the Ada McGrath character's affliction and of the emotional layers that define McGrath. It's almost hypnotic watching Hunter portray this unique character with such subtlety and grace, and that, needless to say, drives this character study quite a ways, but does not do so alone, as there is enough beauty to artistic value and heart to storytelling for the film to reward the patient.
When the piano goes as mute as this film's lead, such false notes as expository shortcomings, bland spells and repetitious, perhaps even aimless dragging are left to reflect natural shortcomings within the imperfect tune that is this minimalist subject matter, which is so prone to the other storytelling errors that the final product stands a real chance of collapsing out of all-goodness, something that is thankfully well-secured in the end, thanks to the handsome art direction photography, gorgeous score work, a tender thoughtfulness to the telling of a compelling tale, and strong acting that make Jane Campion's "The Piano" a compelling and ultimately rewarding drama.
3/5 - Good