Last week, I said of An Angel at My Table, it was "a brilliant work by a woman who was by now in full command of her powers." Ha ha! How very young and naïve I was last week! I mean, I still think An Angel at My Table is a pretty moving, powerful motion picture, but "full command of her powers"? Not hardly. I have only now seen Jane Campion's powers in their full glory; for I have now seen The Piano.

This is the one we remember her for. Not, of course, that the rest of her work doesn't merit respect and even placement among the great working filmmakers, and there are plenty of people who'll ardently defend nearly all of her films (people who'll ardently defend 2003's In the Cut are a bit thin on the ground). But I've never run across a soul that I can recall who had any real affection for Campion's work at all who doesn't consider The Piano to be her greatest film. That kind of unanimity of opinion is virtually unheard of - name another major director who made one film that everyone agrees is his or her masterpiece, quickly. Perhaps Orson Welles and Citizen Kane, but that doesn't quite fit; Almodóvar with All About My Mother and Curtiz with Casablanca probably work, if we agree that Michael Curtiz is a great director. But for one film to so dominate the conversation about a filmmaker's work, that has to indicate a pretty special movie, you'd think.

Sure enough, The Piano is a special movie indeed, despite Netflix's rather idiotic prediction that I'd rank it 3.2/5 stars. So special that I'm sitting here spinning my wheels with pointless bullshit about the reputation of famous directors: the film is much too daunting to even ponder where I'm supposed to begin talking about it, not least because even more than Campion's previous films, all of which felt like the exact sort of movie that keeps revealing itself more and more, the more often you watch it, The Piano is aggressively and obviously a film that rewards much consideration and repeated viewing. And as I write this, it's been less than 48 hours since the first time I've ever seen it.

Okay, so a plot synopsis to kick things off, that's easy enough. The film takes place at an indeterminate point in the middle of the 19th Century, and tells the story of Ada (Holly Hunter), a single mother living with her family in Scotland who does not speak - not even she can say why - and plays piano as the chief method of her communication with other people. As the film begins, Ada has just been married off by her father to a New Zealand landowner that she's never met, or even heard of: a certain Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill). The sea voyage is long and not easy, and when Ada and her 10-year-old daughter Flora (Anna Paquin) disembark from the boat, it's to find that weather or some such has delayed her new husband and his team of carriers. So it is that the women spend their first night in a new country huddled near a campfire on a damp, rainy beach.

When Alisdair finally shows up, he proves to be a bit of a priggish, befuddled man; genuine in his attempts to be nice, surely, but also clearly not certain what kind of human consideration you're supposed to give to a woman, especially one who is mute - and even before we meet him, we already know from his letters that he assumes Ada's condition makes her something halfway between a charity case and a pet dog, albeit a source of sexual favors on top of it all. None of which bothers Ada nearly as much as his election that in the absence of enough men to carry all of her luggage, it's her piano that must stay behind on the beach. Though Ada offers to leave everything else behind if only that one box can be carried overland, Alisdair is firm.

Among the Maori living near Alisdair's unfathomably muddy ranch home is another Scot, George Baines (Harvey Keitel), who has rejected the company of white men to become an honorary member of the local native community. Baines is instantly taken by Ada - he is in a years-long sexual drought, we learn, refusing to sleep with the Maori women - and to demonstrate his affection, he swaps a generous parcel of land to Alisdair for ownership of the piano, still sitting on the beach. When he brings it to his home, he asks that Ada teach him to play, but that is really nothing but an excuse to be near her, to hear her own playing. Eventually, he works up the nerve to offer her the piano back by selling her a few keys at a time in exchange for his freedom to do what he will during her playing - essentially, asking her to whore herself for the instrument - and she only semi-reluctantly agrees. From this point on the story proceeds as it must: Ada finds herself increasingly drawn to Baines, Alisdair finds himself increasingly frustrated by his wife's inattention, and the clouds gather.

Campion rejects labeling herself a feminist filmmaker, and that's her absolute right; but more than any of her earlier works, The Piano is an unmistakably feminist film (which doesn't mean that it can't speak to us too, boys, so don't get all panicky - "feminism" is not a dirty word). Its central theme, after all, is the question of a woman's ownership over her body and her voice: the piano itself, which is abandoned by Alisdair (who would not prefer that his wife have a strong identity independent of himself), bought by Baines (who hopes to exchange it back to Ada in return for her love, but ends up giving it to her outright when he realises that he's made her a prostitute). In a film where nearly every scene contains a beautiful, symbolically rich visual, the most haunting image in The Piano, to me, is a shot of Ada standing on a grassy bluff overlooking the brown sand and grey water of the beach where far off in the distance, the piano lies abandoned in the surf. It is a tremendously devastating shot: this woman has been ripped from her home, sent to be with a man she neither knows nor loves, and now the one object in the world upon which, in a sense, her whole identity rests has been left to the elements.

But since I am a formalist, not a feminist, let's talk form: and The Piano has such a glorious form to talk about. Despite Campion's strong guiding hand as both writer and director, this is a film in which every element of the production is working together so well that, paradoxically, the strongest work of the director's career can hardly be attributed just to the director. In particular, it's quite impossible to imagine how The Piano could possible function without the overpowering Romantic score composed by Peter Greenaway's frequent collaborator, Michael Nyman. The composer is by custom described as a minimalist, and it's rather exciting to listen to the way that his minimalism informs the romanticism of the music. Admittedly, the score to The Piano has been somewhat overplayed in the intervening 16 years, but there's one thing to just hearing a piece of music and recognising it as a fascinating, lovely piece of writing, and then seeing it married to the rich visuals of Stuart Dryburgh's camera, and being struck to your heart by the heightened emotionality of it all.

As for the cinematography: it is quite beautiful in its own way, but not a postcard version of New Zealand's scenic qualities in the way that An Angel at My Table was, and certainly nothing like the tourism-friendly vistas that Peter Jackson laid out with The Lord of the Rings. It is a film with a most limited palette: brown and blue and green, mostly, although those colors are all washed with a sickly layer of grey for the most part. Coupled with the film's production design (courtesy of Andrew McAlpine), full of dusty, crowded interiors and ramshackle, filthy, wet exteriors, the film takes on a most wan appearance. This stark environment contrasts nicely with the rich emotions of the story: Ada's fierce will, Alisdair's jealousy and sorrow, Baines's passion. There's a bit of Wuthering Heights in the way that landscape affects the characters, and vice-versa.

While it is surely the result of great collaboration between many gifted people, film slides neatly into Campion's filmography; though it is not as structurally aggressive as her other features, its central theme is still one of identity, revealed by what we are not told: with the greatest mystery being, of course, Ada's muteness. We learn most of the other things that are not clear at first, at least enough to know where we stand; but the reason she stopped talking at a young age is left completely unexplained (in the novelisation that Campion co-wrote after the film's release, this is apparently not the case - damn her if that's really the case, and so we learn once again that artists are not the best interpreters of their own work). It is, however, plainly a matter of Ada's own choice; so even in this case of being specifically denied information about a character, we are still learning much about her personality.

The black hole around Ada's muteness is only a portion of her development, of course, and she eventually proves to be the most extraordinarily interesting character in Campion's cinema. This is in no small part due to Holly Hunter's awe-inspiring performance - one of the very best things done by an actress onscreen in the 1990s; I am tempted to say even the second-best behind only Juliette Binoche's epochal performance in Three Colors: Blue (the very same year! Yay for 1993). It is not an awards-baiting "woman with a disability" role in the least - though Hunter won a great number of awards, from Cannes on down to the Oscars - but a sensitive and subtle thing, greatly aided by Anna Paquin's stunning debut as her interpreter, her alter-ego, and at times her antagonist. Hunter has always been one of my favorite actresses - she has an unusual skill at conveying emotion through the briefest turn in her tone of voice - and now I find that she needs nothing but her eyes, flaming with anger, passion and strength, to create an absolutely believable figure.

But what do I know - I just saw the thing, and enthusiasm has a way of fading in weeks or months. Maybe the people are right who look at The Piano and see a slow-moving, almost plotless story about a group of people who aren't, on the whole, particularly easy to sympathise with. Maybe I'm wrong to see The Piano as a stunning mood piece and a haunting adult fairy tale about a woman's quest to control her identity or destiny (summed up perfectly in the final shot). I kind of doubt it, though.