Academic journal article Film Criticism

Duel or Duet? Gendered Nationalism in the Piano

Academic journal article Film Criticism

Duel or Duet? Gendered Nationalism in the Piano

Article excerpt

In Jane Campion's 1993 film The Piano, the main character, Ada, struggles to find her footing as she disembarks from a rickety boat shored up on the coast of the small island nation of New Zealand. It is 1851 and the beach is austere and foreboding--steep cliffs stretching away into damp mist, the surf shuddering behind her. Ada, a self-imposed mute, has been sent by her father with her illegitimate daughter Flora to this place to marry a man she has never met. Her life now will be in this country. As she faces her situation--uncertain and defiant--Ada not only represents one of the many men and women who traveled to all the comers of the globe as settlers, missionaries, explorers, and pleasure seekers during this time, but she also foretells the future of this place she has come to. One hundred years later, New Zealand is at the crossroads regarding race relations and post-colonialist concerns. As New Zealand moves into the new millenium and attempts to forge an identity independent of Britain and its role as a former colony, Campion's fashioning of Ada's endeavors takes on an equally important contemporary meaning, particularly regarding Ada's lack of interaction with the Maori.(1)

Since the settlement of Aotearoa,(2) citizenship in this country has necessitated interaction between Maori and Pakeha.(3) New Zealand has never enforced policies of slavery or segregation (thus enforcing legal--if cruel and unrealistic--separation). Although Maori-Pakeha relations cannot--and should not--be romanticized at any stage in the country's history, the fact remains that throughout the 150 years of the nation's existence Maori and Pakeha have lived together. They have fought each other, married, passed laws and cultural decrees giving and taking away rights and privileges from each group, and now are attempting to negotiate the next stage of biculturalism as a nation. To what extent can Ada's interactions and the interactions of other characters be seen as a metaphor for a new way of looking at New Zealand's national identity and intercultural understanding?

In The Piano there is an equally important thread running through the film that aligns Ada's self-discovery in this wild new place with the people she finds around her. She takes her clues on how to be not only from Stewart, her pompous and eternally belabored English husband, but also from Baines, her lover and a fellow Scotsman "gone native," and, to a lesser extent, in opposition to the Maori she comes in contact with. I will show how Ada's body forms a representative location for the intersection of contemporary issues regarding gender, race, and nationalistic identity by examining selected reviews and scholarly articles about the film, imperialist/colonial theories, and interviews with the director. I discuss various theories regarding colonial and feminist themes in the film. As I will detail, I refute these assumptions. Imperialist and colonialist theory provides a framework for situating Ada's character by showing how, in her interactions with others, she in fact submits to the roles suggested for colonial women during this historical period, thus limiting commonly held opinions that The Piano is a feminist text.(4) Finally, Campion's interviews provide support for my rationale, highlighting the director's own race and background as issues that factored in the final product.

The Piano itself is a contested "body" of work. The production notes from the film's release state that this is "a French-financed, New Zealand based, Australian production of a New Zealand story." The different strands that tie the film together represent Campion's struggle to find a place that would receive both her and her unconventional art.(5) Comparisons can be drawn between Campion and writer Katherine Mansfield, another gifted New Zealand woman who left at an early age to escape the country's repressive moral and cultural climate. Like Campion, Mansfield's most recognized work draws predominantly on her New Zealand heritage and experiences, and as a result she has become one of New Zealand's most noted artists, even though she was an expatriate for the majority of her life. …

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