final rosie 🔪’s review published on Letterboxd:
#4 in my 52 films by women challenge.
**some major spoilers**
I was born in new zealand in 1993 - the year this film was released - and while I was aware of this and other essential kiwi media throughout my youth and into my teens, I was never all that immersed in my own country's creative voice and so missed this growing up. of course, I wasn't completely detached - my schooling wouldn't allow that. I watched whale rider, and the lord of the rings; I read barry crump (whose novel wild pork and watercress came back to me when I watched hunt for the wilderpeople last year); and I attended field trips to maraes and even participated in a hangi. but I never took classes in maori, and though I grew up on a farm I never spent too much time in the bush, and the vast, vast majority of my friends were white and otherwise privileged like me. I was also far more interested in british and american shows - skins, heroes, LOST, stuff like that - so while I've always been proud of my country's beauty, and miss it now that I've moved away, it's only recently that I've come to truly appreciate new zealand film.
from the first shot this film is breathtaking. in the opening sequence, from behind splayed fingers, ada's childlike inner voice greets us from beneath a tree in scotland. she tells us that she is mute, but she has a voice through her piano. and indeed, this is all she needs. other characters (her daughter excluded) put so much weight on her supposed lack of voice, while ada herself is happy to be who she is. she can still tell her daughter stories, and she can still tantrum with the best of them - she can sing and scold and shout without saying a single word. she is so present, and so real, and so wonderful to watch, so I do believe that holly hunter was 100% deserving of that oscar for best leading actress, even though I've seen none of the other films in that category.
I'm happy, too, that ada's silence is entirely her own choice, and that rather than being a silent woman in a film by a man, she is a silent woman in a film by a woman.
anna paquin impressed me as ada's precocious daughter flora (an official name for her character which nonetheless is never once mentioned). she carries at least half the energy in this film in her loud voice and big attitude, telling lies to the maids and cartwheeling on the beach and crashing through the bush while swearing and, I'm certain, adding vulgarity to translations of her mother's already rather angry sign language.
for the most part I really enjoyed the plot. it's slow, especially in the first half, but always entertaining. however, I struggled with certain scenes. I very quickly grew attached to ada's character and hated to see some of the things she went through. I wasn't aware, before watching this, how violent or how sexual it would be.
the early eroticism between ada and baines came across to me as sexual assault on his part, but I found myself rooting for their relationship anyway. this is difficult to admit, because of course I abhor rapists, but I feel like maybe there was something I missed - some nod of consent from ada - that burrowed into my mind unnoticed and created a smidgen of sympathy. still, I'm not sure what campion's intention was with having both baine and stewart assault ada, as it puts them on slightly less uneven ground despite that one is a man she comes to love and the other is a man she hates. so, my thoughts on this matter are rather confused...
it's also difficult, but not quite so much, to see sam neill (an actor I have always liked, most of all for his role in jurassic park) playing the character he does in this film. stewart, who is difficult to digest at first, gradually becomes more and more abhorrent. but while I hated him I was glad not to be treated to a scene of his death. cutting directly to ada wearing all black was far more powerful than seeing baines snatch the axe out of stewart's pathetic hands and slamming it into the middle of his breastbone, all without waking flora from her sleep. I'm assuming that's what happened, anyway.
of course, the music in this is beautiful. I think that should go without saying but I'll say it anyway.
the ending almost had me drop my rating by a half star but saved itself in time. I wont say why - this review is spoiler-heavy enough already - but I was on the edge of my seat. it is such a perfect, quietly triumphant way to end this roller coaster of a film.
I'll close this review (which took me two days to write, for some reason) by saying that while I perhaps don't understand some of the motivation behind parts of this film as well as I could, I loved it very, very much - endlessly, deeply; especially hunter and paquin, who have secured ada and flora places on my list of my favourite characters in film - and it now sits in my mind at the forefront of both historical dramas and kiwi films as a whole.
p.s. was that sam neill's real butt???
p.p.s. this film is available to watch for the next 14 days on MUBI.