Ada (Holly Hunter) is a wilful mail-order bride who has, for some unexplained reason, been mute since the age of 6.
When she arrives to wed a stranger in the wilds of 19th century New Zealand with only her daughter, Flora (Anna Paquin) and her piano to remind her of the civilization she left behind, unbridled longings erupt and tragedy follows.
Hunter’s new husband, Stewart (Sam Neill) is a cruel, emotionless brute who leaves her piano on the beach, a lasting symbol of life unfinished and happiness unfulfilled.
Baines (Harvey Keitel) is the horny neighbour who escorts her on the arduous journey through the jungle back to the seacoast for occasional visits with her abandoned keyboard.
Naturally, lust raises its shaggy head and Ada follows her erotic instincts at her own peril. Through all of the rutting and violence that follow, one man is driven to madness through sexual frustration, the other man is propelled to love through erotic fulfilment, and the real tragedy is the way the adults use the child as a go-between, a traumatised messenger.
The Piano redefines languid. The film has a certain moody, morbid fascination, but its narrative flow is underwhelming. The biggest gaffe is the miscasting of the men who are the objects of the feverish sturm und drang.
Sam Neill – who is supposed to be the loutish brute – is so much more handsome and appealing than Harvey Keitel, who is supposed to be the drop-dead sexual saviour, that you begin to wonder if Ms Hunter is not only mute but crackers, too.