The first observation I want to make is this - a risk of film writing is finding the influence of your favorite movies everywhere in other movies, whether it's there or not. In this discussion of Jane Campion's The Piano, I plan to draw comparisons to Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, without doubt one of my ten favorite films. That said, even if the influence didn't enter Campion's mind (although the preponderance of candlelit scenes in The Piano points to the possibility), I think the example of Barry Lyndon is nonetheless instructive as a point of comparison.
Lyndon follows the up-and-down fortunes of its title character, an 18th Century Irish bloke who through pluck and luck ends up married into the height of British aristocracy. He is a man whose passions often get the best of him and make him seem out of place in his surroundings. What is important for this discussion is the way that Kubrick paints the deadened society that we enter. Through custom, the aristocracy has put a lid on passion and individualism, in fear of its power to disrupt social stability. The social system has gone so far as to ritualize the passions of sex (through arranged marriage) and murder (through dueling). The result is a calcified society that has so discouraged passion and indvidualism that it has become blind to its power. That comes across ironically in the voiceover of the film's aristocrat narrator, a man who is so wedded to the system that he isn't qualified to offer accurate commentary on the life of Lyndon.
A couple of commenters to my first post on The Piano have stated that they find the characters so unlikable as to injure the film. That's certainly a risk with Sam Neill's New Zealand farmer, who has purchased the hand in marriage of Britain's Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter). He has brought the mute mother to New Zealand against her wishes, with the expectation that she will dutifully serve the function of being his wife. Not exactly hero stuff there. It's certainly easy to see why one would dislike the brutish backwoodsman Baines (Harvey Keitel), who acquires Ada's beloved piano from her new husband. Once in his possession, he ransoms the piano to its rightful owner key by key, forcing Ada to perform progressively blatant sexual favors. She succumbs, for passionately playing the piano is her chosen method of communication.
I'm guessing the power dynamic between Baines and Ada sparks the most discomfort, particularly Baines' selfish exploitation of it to force Ada to do what she protests that she is unwilling to do. Even Baines will eventually describe the relationship as "whoring" Ada. It's difficult, obviously, to get behind a character who would do such a thing. And it's difficult to see why Ada would subject herself to such humiliation, and why she would eventually look past it to fall in love with the perpetrator.
But here is the thought that occurred to me. It's important to observe that the story takes place in fundamentally the same sort of society as Lyndon, one that so wholly distrusts female passion that it places rigid social controls upon it, particularly with its marital customs. It's important to remember that while we watch the film from a liberal, romantic, "love conquers all" society, a distance exists to the society in which these characters live, and a difference exists in the way that they are capable of viewing and approaching their world. So here's my theory: They are parroting the tools of the wider system, but re-shaping them in a way that allows them the mental wiggle room to explore their passion in a society that frowns upon it. In short, I think Ada feels constrained by the social expectations. She might hate them, but she performs them. And at first she protests to Baines' assaults upon her marital virtue, even though she doesn't feel that into the marriage. The belief that she is being forced to move might well lend her the mental cover to do what she deeply wants. Which is why she keeps returning to do what she professes to hate. While we might not feel the need for such weird mental calisthenics, I can see why someone in her position would.
Now let's look at the portrayal of Lady Lyndon, the young, wealthy heiress who marries Barry after the the death of the aristocratic old fart to whom we assume she was handed over. The womanizing Barry cheats on her blatantly. From the perspective of the aristocratic narrator, the movie's advocate of the system, this is a blatant violation of his wife's sanctity, and one that, he assumes, she must find deeply unsettling. And yet Lady Lyndon happily takes back the big lug. The narrator presents this as evidence of her saintliness, another example of the heavenly virtue that Barry violates by his unrepentant womanizing. But the narrator, operating from a perspective that devalues passion, cannot understand the dynamic in play. In a passionless society, a woman might well prefer the passion that leads a man to stray, so long as it eventually refocuses its energy upon her. Given a choice between a womanizing Barry and another walking corpse incapable of feeling and incapable of making her feel desired, you might understand why she would choose Barry. (I don't want to mischaracterize my Lyndon observations as plopping from my head. The basics are in this terrific Lyndon essay, and possibly others that I've read but don't recall. I'm pretty sure that is the right one. )
I think Ada is experiencing something similar. In a society discouraging female passion, that barters her hand in marriage away to a bidder, Baines' "whoring" system a) is no different morally from standard operating procedure, and b) at least gives Ada the warmth of feeling passionately desired. And it also gives her a say in things, a power that she has never felt, as symbolized by her refusal to speak. During the play scene, Baines sits next to her, as she sits next to her husband. Unable to bear the seating arrangement, Baines abruptly leaves. Ada curls the slightest grin to her face. It's the first moment where she seems deliciously in charge. The system that at first degrades her and denies her power actually begins to feed it, as opposed to the powerlessness found in her other relationships with men.
For these reasons, upon second viewing, I no longer feel the same hesitation with the plot or the characters.