The Piano

This article is about the film. For the instrument, see Piano. For other uses, see Piano (disambiguation).
The Piano

US theatrical release poster
Directed by Jane Campion
Produced by Jan Chapman
Written by Jane Campion
Music by Michael Nyman
Cinematography Stuart Dryburgh
Edited by Veronika Jenet
Distributed by Bac Films (France)
Miramax Films (US)
Entertainment Film Distributors (UK)
Release dates
  • 15 May 1993 (1993-05-15) (Cannes)
  • 19 May 1993 (1993-05-19) (France)
  • 5 August 1993 (1993-08-05) (Australia)
Running time
117 minutes
Country New Zealand
Language English
British Sign Language
Budget US$7 million[1]
Box office US$140 million[2]

The Piano is a 1993 New Zealand drama film about a mute piano player and her daughter. Set during the mid-19th century in a rainy, muddy frontier backwater town on the west coast of New Zealand, it revolves around the piano player's passion for playing the piano and her efforts to regain her piano after it is sold. The Piano was written and directed by Jane Campion, and stars Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel, Sam Neill, and Anna Paquin in her first acting role. The film's score for the piano by Michael Nyman became a best-selling soundtrack album, and Hunter played her own piano pieces for the film. She also served as sign language teacher for Paquin, earning three screen credits. The film is an international co-production by Australian producer Jan Chapman with the French company Ciby 2000.

The Piano was a success both critically and commercially, grossing US$140 million worldwide against its US$7 million budget. Hunter and Paquin both received high praise for their respective roles as Ada McGrath and Flora McGrath. In 1993 the film won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Subsequently, in March 1994, The Piano won 3 Academy Awards out of 8 total nominations: Best Actress for Hunter, Best Supporting Actress for Paquin, and Best Original Screenplay for Campion. Paquin, who at the time was 11 years old, is the second youngest Oscar winner ever in a competitive category, after Tatum O'Neal, who also won the Best Supporting Actress award in 1974 for Paper Moon, at 10.


A mute Scotswoman named Ada McGrath is sold by her father into marriage to a New Zealand frontiersman named Alisdair Stewart, bringing her young daughter Flora with her. The voice that the audience hears in the opening narration is "not her speaking voice, but her mind's voice". Ada has not spoken a word since she was six years old and no one, including herself, knows why. She expresses herself through her piano playing and through sign language, for which her daughter has served as the interpreter. Flora later dramatically tells two women in New Zealand that her mother has not spoken since the death of her husband who died as a result of being struck by lightning. Ada cares little for the mundane world, occupying herself for hours every day with the piano. Flora, it is later learned, is the product of a relationship with a teacher with whom Ada believed she could communicate through her mind, but who "became frightened and stopped listening", and thus left her.

Ada, Flora, and their belongings, including a hand crafted piano, are deposited on a New Zealand beach by a ship's crew. As there is no one there to meet them, they spend the night alone on the beach amongst their crated belongings. The following day, the husband who has bought her, Alisdair, arrives with a Māori crew and his white friend, Baines, a fellow forester and retired sailor who has adopted many of the Maori customs, including tattooing his face. Alisdair proves to be a shy and diffident man, who is jokingly called "old dry balls" by his Māori neighbours. He tells Ada that there is no room in his small house for the piano and abandons the piano on the beach. Ada, in turn, is cold to him and is determined to be reunited with her piano.

Unable to communicate with Alisdair, Ada and Flora visit Baines with a note asking to be taken to the piano. He explains that he cannot read. When Flora translates her mother's wishes, he initially refuses, but the three ultimately spend the day on the beach with Ada playing music. Baines, whose wife is far away in England living a separate life, is taken by the transformation in Ada when she plays her piano. Baines soon suggests that Alisdair trade the instrument to him for some land. Alisdair consents, and agrees to his further request to receive lessons from Ada, oblivious to his attraction to her.

Ada is enraged when she learns that Alisdair has traded away her precious piano without consulting her and complains that she does not want a man with filthy hands and no ability to read, touching her piano. Alisdair shouts the finality of his decision and demands that she fulfill the contract of providing lessons. On the day she arrives at his hut, she attempts to make an excuse that she cannot play the piano because it is out of tune. She is stunned to find that Baines has had the piano put into perfect tune. She begins by asking him to play anything he knows, but he asks to simply listen rather than learn to play himself. It becomes clear that he procured the piano not for his own interest in music, but because he likes who Ada becomes when she plays. During one session, Baines proposes that Ada can earn her piano back at a rate of one piano key per "lesson", provided that he can observe her and do "things he likes" while she plays. She is not eager to accept the deal, but cannot turn down the opportunity to regain her piano. She agrees, but negotiates for a number of lessons equal to the number of black keys only.

While Ada and her husband Alisdair have had no sexual, nor even mildly affectionate, interaction, the lessons with Baines become a slow seduction for her affection. Baines requests gradually increased intimacy in exchange for greater numbers of keys. Ada reluctantly accepts but does not give herself to him the way he desires. Realizing that she only does what she has to in order to regain the piano, and that she has no romantic feelings for him, Baines gives up and simply returns the piano to Ada, saying that their arrangement "is making you a whore, and me wretched", and that what he really wants is for her to actually care for him.

Despite Ada having her piano back, she ultimately finds herself missing Baines watching her as she plays. She returns to him one afternoon, where they submit to their desire for one another. Alisdair, having become suspicious of their relationship, hears them making love as he walks by Baines' house, and then watches them through a crack in the wall. Outraged, he follows her the next day and confronts her in the forest, where he attempts to force himself on her, despite her intense resistance. He then boards up his home with Ada inside so she will not be able to visit Baines while Alisdair is working on his timberland. After this, Ada realizes she must show affection with Alisdair if she is ever to be released from her home prison, though her caresses only serve to frustrate him more because when he tries to touch her, she pulls away. Eventually resolving to trust her, he removes the barriers from the house, and exacts a promise from Ada that she will not see Baines.

Soon afterwards, Ada sends her daughter with a package for Baines, containing a single piano key with an inscribed love declaration reading "Dear George you have my heart Ada McGrath". Flora does not want to deliver the package and brings the piano key instead to Alisdair. After reading the love note burnt onto the piano key, Alisdair furiously returns home with an axe and cuts off Ada's index finger to deprive her of the ability to play the piano. He then sends Flora who witnessed this to Baines with the severed finger wrapped in cloth, with the message that if Baines ever attempts to see Ada again, he will chop off more fingers.

Later that night, while touching Ada in her sleep, Alisdair hears what he believes to be Ada's voice inside of his head, asking him to let Baines take her away. Deeply shaken, he goes to Baines' house and asks if she has ever spoken words to him. Baines assures him she has not. Ultimately, it is assumed that he decides to send Ada and Flora away with Baines and dissolve their marriage once she has recovered from her injuries. They depart from the same beach on which she first landed in New Zealand. While being rowed to the ship with her baggage and Ada's piano tied onto a Māori longboat, Ada asks Baines to throw the piano overboard. As it sinks, she deliberately tangles her foot in the rope trailing after it. She is pulled overboard but, deep under water, changes her mind and kicks free and is pulled to safety.

In an epilogue, Ada describes her new life with Baines and Flora in Nelson, where she has started to give piano lessons in their new home, and her severed finger has been replaced with a silver finger made by Baines. Ada has also started to take speech lessons in order to learn how to speak again. Ada says that she imagines her piano in its grave in the sea, and herself suspended above it, which "lulls me to sleep". The story closes with her remarking that "it is a weird lullaby, and so it is; it is mine", before reciting the first three lines of Thomas Hood's poem "Silence", which also opened the film: "There is a silence where hath been no sound. There is a silence where no sound may be—in the cold grave, under the deep deep sea".



Casting the role of Ada was a difficult process. Sigourney Weaver was Campion's first choice, but she turned down the role because she was taking a break from film at the time. Jennifer Jason Leigh was also considered, but she could not meet with Campion to read the script because she was committed to shooting the film Rush (1991).[3] Isabelle Huppert met with Jane Campion and had vintage period-style photographs taken of her as Ada, and later said she regretted not fighting for the role as Hunter did.[4]

The casting for Flora occurred after Hunter had been selected for the part. They did a series of open auditions for girls age 9 to 13, focusing on girls who were small enough to be believable as Ada's daughter (as Holly Hunter is relatively short at 157 cm / 5' 2" tall[5]). Anna Paquin ended up winning the role of Flora over 5,000 other girls.[6]

Alistair Fox has argued that The Piano was significantly influenced by Jane Mander's The Story of a New Zealand River.[7] Robert Macklin, an associate editor with The Canberra Times newspaper, has also written about the similarities.[8] The film also serves as a retelling of the fairytale "Bluebeard",[9][10] which is hinted at further in the inclusion of "Bluebeard" as a piece of the Christmas pageant.

In July 2013, Campion revealed that she originally intended for the main character to drown in the sea after going overboard after her piano.[11]

Production on the film started in April 1992, filming began on 11 May 1992 and lasted until July 1992, and production officially ended on 22 December 1992.[12]


Reviews for the film were overwhelmingly positive. Roger Ebert wrote: "The Piano is as peculiar and haunting as any film I've seen" and "It is one of those rare movies that is not just about a story, or some characters, but about a whole universe of feeling". Hal Hinson of The Washington Post called it "[An] evocative, powerful, extraordinarily beautiful film". In his movie guide, Leonard Maltin gave the film 3 1/2 stars out of 4, calling the film a "Haunting, unpredictable tale of love and sex told from a woman's point of view" and went on to say "Writer-director Campion has fashioned a highly original fable, showing the tragedy and triumph erotic passion can bring to one's daily life".[13] On the film site Rotten Tomatoes, The Piano earned a 90% "Certified Fresh" rating.[14] On Metacritic, it holds a score of 89 out of 100, indicating "universal acclaim".[15]

At the 1993 Cannes Film Festival, the film shared the Palme d'Or Best Film Award with Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine, and Holly Hunter received the Best Actress Award.[16] In 1994, the film won 3 Academy Awards: Best Actress (Holly Hunter), Best Supporting Actress (Anna Paquin) and Best Original Screenplay (Jane Campion). Anna Paquin was the second youngest person after Tatum O'Neal to win an Academy Award. Holly Hunter is notable for being one of three actresses – along with Marlee Matlin (for her American sign language performance in Children of a Lesser God) and Jane Wyman (for her deaf-mute role in Johnny Belinda)—to receive an Academy Award for Best Actress in the post-silent era for a non-speaking role (her voice is only heard off-screen in a few scenes). The film made its US premiere at the Hawaii International Film Festival.


Award Category Subject Result
(1993 Australian Film Institute Awards)
Best Film Jan Chapman Won
Best Direction Jane Campion Won
Best Original Screenplay Won
Best Actor Harvey Keitel Won
Best Actress Holly Hunter Won
Best Supporting Actor Sam Neill Nominated
Best Supporting Actress Kerry Walker Nominated
Best Cinematography Stuart Dryburgh Won
Best Editing Veronika Jenet Won
Best Original Music Score Michael Nyman Won
Best Sound Lee Smith Won
Tony Johnson
Gethin Creagh
Peter Townsend
Annabelle Sheehan
Best Production Design Andrew McAlpine Won
Best Costume Design Janet Patterson Won
Academy Awards Best Picture Jan Chapman Nominated
Best Director Jane Campion Nominated
Best Original Screenplay Won
Best Actress Holly Hunter Won
Best Supporting Actress Anna Paquin Won
Best Cinematography Stuart Dryburgh Nominated
Best Costume Design Janet Patterson Nominated
Best Film Editing Veronika Jenet Nominated
ACE Eddie Award Best Edited Feature Film – Dramatic Nominated
ASC Award Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography in Theatrical Releases Stuart Dryburgh Nominated
BAFTA Awards Best Film Jan Chapman Nominated
Best Direction Jane Campion Nominated
Best Original Screenplay Nominated
Best Actress Holly Hunter Won
Best Cinematography Stuart Dryburgh Nominated
Best Sound Lee Smith Nominated
Tony Johnson Nominated
Gethin Creagh Nominated
Peter Townsend Nominated
Annabelle Sheehan Nominated
Best Music Michael Nyman Nominated
Best Production Design Andrew McAlpine Won
Best Costume Design Janet Patterson Won
Best Editing Veronika Jenet Nominated
Boston Film Critics Award Best Actress Holly Hunter Won
Cannes Film Festival Awards Golden Palm Jan Chapman Won
Best Actress Holly Hunter Won
César Award Best Foreign Film Jane Campion Won
Chicago Film Critics Association Awards Best Foreign Film Jan Chapman Won
Best Score Michael Nyman Won
Best Actress Holly Hunter Won
Dallas–Fort Worth Film Critics Association Awards Best Actress Won
Directors Guild of America Award Outstanding Directing – Feature Film Jane Campion Nominated
Golden Globe Awards Best Motion Picture – Drama Jan Chapman Nominated
Best Director Jane Campion Nominated
Best Screenplay Nominated
Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama Holly Hunter Won
Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture Anna Paquin Nominated
Best Original Score Michael Nyman Nominated
Guldbagge Award Best Foreign Film Jan Chapman Won
Independent Spirit Award Best Foreign Film Jane Campion Won
London Film Critics' Circle Awards Film of the Year Jan Chapman Won
Best Actress Holly Hunter Won
Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards Best Director Jane Campion Won
Best Screenplay Won
Best Actress Holly Hunter Won
Best Supporting Actress Anna Paquin Won
Best Cinematography Stuart Dryburgh Won
National Board of Review Award Best Actress Holly Hunter Won
National Society of Film Critics Awards Best Actress Won
Best Screenplay Jane Campion Won
New York Film Critics Circle Awards Best Director Won
Best Screenplay Won
Best Actress Holly Hunter Won
Southeastern Film Critics Association Awards Best Picture Jan Chapman Won
Best Director Jane Campion Won
Best Actress Holly Hunter Won
Writers Guild of America Award Best Original Screenplay Jane Campion Won


For more details, see The Piano (soundtrack).
"The Piano"
Extract from the score of the 1993 film "The Piano"

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The score for the film was written by Michael Nyman, and included the acclaimed piece "The Heart Asks Pleasure First"; additional pieces were "Big My Secret", "The Mood That Passes Through You", "Silver Fingered Fling", "Deep Sleep Playing" and "The Attraction of the Peddling Ankle". This album is rated in the top 100 soundtrack albums of all time and Nyman's work is regarded as a key voice in the film, which has a mute lead character (Entertainment Weekly, 12 October 2001, p. 44).

Home media

The film was released on DVD in 1997 by LIVE Entertainment and on Blu-ray on 31 January 2012 by Lionsgate, but already released in 2010 in Australia.[17]


  1. Box Office Information for The Piano. The Wrap. Retrieved 4 April 2013
  2. Margolis, H. (2000). Jane Campion's The Piano. Cambridge University Press. p. 135. ISBN 9780521597210. Retrieved 13 July 2016.
  3. "A Pinewood Dialogue With Jennifer Jason Leigh" (PDF). Museum of the Moving Image. 23 November 1994.
  4. "Isabelle Huppert: La Vie Pour Jouer – Career/Trivia". Archived from the original on 16 February 2012.
  5. Denise Worrell (21 December 1987). "Show Business: Holly Hunter Takes Hollywood". Retrieved 22 July 2010.
  6. Andrew Fish (Summer 2010). "It's in Her Blood: From Child Prodigy to Supernatural Heroine, Anna Paquin Has Us Under Her Spell". Venice Magazine. Archived from the original on 25 July 2010. Retrieved 22 July 2010.
  7. Alistair Fox. "Puritanism and the Erotics of Transgression: the New Zealand Influence on Jane Campion's Thematic Imaginary". Archived from the original on 24 October 2007. Retrieved 7 October 2007.
  8. Macklin, Robert (September 2000). "FIELD NOTES: The Purloined Piano?". lingua franca. 10 (6).
  9. Heidi Ann Heiner. "Modern Interpretations of Bluebeard". Retrieved 12 April 2010.
  10. Scott C. Smith. "Look at The Piano". Archived from the original on 12 October 2010. Retrieved 12 April 2010.
  11. Child, Ben (July 8, 2013). "Jane Campion wanted a bleaker ending for The Piano". The Guardian.
  12. "The Piano (1993) – Box office / business". IMDb.
  13. Maltin, Leonard. 2013 Movie Guide. Penguin Books. p. 1084. ISBN 978-0-451-23774-3.
  14. "The Piano". Retrieved 31 July 2008.
  15. The Piano Reviews – Metacritic
  16. "Festival de Cannes: The Piano". Retrieved 22 August 2009.
  17. Piano [Blu-ray] (1993)
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Preceded by
Academy Award winner for
Best Actress and

Best Supporting Actress

Succeeded by
Shakespeare in Love
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