November 22, 1993 12:00 PM

Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel, Sam Neill

Except for a few minutes of voice-over narration, Hunter never speaks in this haunting Australian movie, but she gives what is probably her best performance yet (it also seems safe to say, with fall flying by, that it is the finest of the year). As a mute 19th-century Scotswoman who becomes a sort of mail-order bride to a New Zealand settler (Neill), then drifts into an affair with his neighbor (Keitel), Hunter is frail-looking but fierce, investing every moment with gravity and fire. Just consider one significant gesture: the oddly ecstatic way she strokes the keys of her piano—the instrument on which her adulterous affair hinges—with the back of her hand, as if she were caressing Keitel’s cheek. Hunter makes this woman—who at first can express her feelings only through music—an almost mythically powerful character, as memorably vivid as one of Thomas Hardy’s headstrong, rustic heroines. Like them, she is hounded by destiny, lovers and personal demons, and her drama is acted out against a wild, primal landscape of forest and sea.

Writer and director Jane Campion is perhaps not as sure-footed setting up the central triangle as one might wish, and whenever the story moves indoors—to Keitel’s and Neill’s cabins—the movie feels musty and crabbed (although maybe that’s the point). But these are the tiniest of quibbles when weighed against Hunter’s performance, Stuart Dryburgh’s cinematography (one early, dusky close-up of Hunter, just before she accompanies her new husband inland, could be a movie in itself) and Michael Nyman’s romantic but slightly chilly score. The movie is a beautiful, and rare, accomplishment: a distillation of passion, tinged with regret, tenderness and warmth. It’s what a pianist would call a nocturne. (R)

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