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"The voice you hear is not my speaking voice, but my mind's voice."
Hunter stars as a mute woman named Ada McGrath who, along with her precocious daughter Flora (Paquin), are shipped off to New Zealand after Ada's father arranges a marriage with her new husband, Alisdair Stewart (Neil). Ada leaves her native early Victorian Scotland, but brings along her beloved piano, which she considers to be her voice, regardless of her silence. Of course, Alisdair doesn't bother with the piano, and it is left on the beach. This leads to Ada's initial reticence at the marriage becoming active hostility, and things become more tense between the newlyweds when Stewart sells the piano to a neighbor, George Baines (Keitel).
Baines proposes a deal to Ada - she can earn her piano back, key-by-key, if she lets him do certain things while she plays. These "things" begin as simple as allowing him to touch her knee through a hole in her stocking, but grow into more overtly requests. While Ada initially begins these lessons as a means solely to gain access to her piano, she grows to love Baines, and the two begin a clandestine affair. At the same time, Flora's boredom in the new home leads her to start interfering with the adults around her, and Ada's hatred of Stewart leads him to grow more and more frustrated as things grow ever closer to a breaking point.
The film was incredibly well received, nominated for 8 Academy Awards and winning 3 of them (Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Writing). It is a very popular film amongst women, often championing the common battle-of-the-sexes debate as to the difference between pornography and erotica: the film has some very explicit sex scenes, but they are very artfully done. It did very well at the box office. Despite its small production budget, it earned about 40 million dollars at the United States market. Where it was the 36th most successful film of its year.
- And I Must Scream: Ada is mute, and doesn't make a sound when Stewart tries to rape her, nor when he cuts off her finger. Made even more unsettling by the fact that Ada is willingly mute and kept quiet because that's her habit.
- Arranged Marriage: Ada and Alisdair's marriage.
- Axe Crazy: Alastair becomes this in the end, in a disturbingly literal way.
- Bittersweet Ending: Ada got a finger chopped off and was nearly raped by the man who was married to her, when he turned psychotic. And she nearly drowns after throwing out her old piano due to bad memories from said psychotic ex-husband. But she and her daughter are safe, she's starting to talk again, and is with Baines, who is a good, decent man.
- Blue and Orange Morality: Alisdair can't understand the values and morals of the native Maori. Likewise, they can't understand his.
- Book Dumb: Baines is illiterate, but emotionally he's one of the most perceptive characters in the film. He is perhaps the only person who can effectively communicate with both whites and the Maori, and the only person who doesn't immediately think Ada is some sort of freak.
- The Cast Showoff: Holly Hunter, an accomplished pianist, played all of the pieces in the film. Michael Nyman's score is not easy to play. Possibly also a case of Cast the Expert.
- Chekhov's Axe: Overlapping with Ax Crazy in one scene.
- Cute Mute: Ada.
- Defrosting Ice Queen: Ada
- Determinator: Ada's most defining trait is probably her stubbornness, and she's going to get her piano back. It's also worth mentioning that Ada is mute out of choice, and not because she was born that way. She just doesn't want to talk.
- Disappeared Dad: Flora has never met her real father; he ran off before she was born.
- The Ditz: Nessie
- Fingore: Alisdair cuts off Ada's finger in a fit of rage.
- Going Native: Baines shows signs of this.
- Harmful to Minors: Flora watches as Alisdair chops off her mother's finger. Then she has to deliver it to Baines.
- Kids Are Cruel: Flora torments a dog so she can comfort it afterwards.
- Lonely Doll Girl: This is probably why Flora did that to the dog in the first place. She has no one to socialize with as her mother increasingly ignores her and Alisdair forbids her to play with the native children.
- Lonely Piano Piece: "The Promise", the score's main theme.
- Loners Are Freaks: Everyone's reaction to Ada for her silence and her general lack of interest in other people.
- Male Frontal Nudity: Baines.
- Missing Mom: Ada's mother is never seen or mentioned.
- Misunderstood Loner with a Heart of Gold: Baines
- Rape Is Love: Alisdair tried to rape Ada.
- Raven Hair, Ivory Skin/Eerie Pale-Skinned Brunette: Ada is pale and dark-haired, but the effect this has on the other characters varies from person to person.
- Sexless Marriage: Ada doesn't allow Alisdair to touch her.
- Skip of Innocence: Flora does this often.
- Snooping Little Kid: Flora can't keep out of other people's business, and it ultimately causes trouble when she starts talking about what she sees.
- Troubling Unchildlike Behavior: Alisdair reads this into a game Flora is playing with the Maori children and tells her never to do it again. Technically averted in that Flora is neither traumatized nor trying to be an adult, she was just playing with the other children.
- The Voiceless: Ada
- Woman in Black: Ada wears black dresses through most of the film, making her look all the most pale and ghostly. She finally wears color when she leaves with Baines.
- Yandere: Alisdair