...Anna Paquin in The Piano (1993)
approximately 37 minutes and 35 seconds
roughly 31% of film's total running time
Ada's just been married off to a New Zealand settler and Paquin's Flora is along for the ride, serving as her mother's translator as the two journey from Scotland and arrive in this astonishing "new" land.
Paquin's Flora is a precocious child, to say the least. Her mother's love buoys Flora, even as her mother's dependence fortifies the child's unusual confidence and certitude. Moreover, Flora's a girl as yet unfettered by the stymying self-consciousness of adolescence.
The combination establishes Flora as a significant force to be reckoned with amidst a narrative fraught with charged intimacies.
The construction of the character of Flora is among director Jane Campion's deftest strokes in a film lush with cinematic mastery.
See, the character of Flora, when it comes right down to it, functions as a plot device (a mechanism through which crucial information is conveyed and essential action is impelled).
Yet, Campion -- in Flora -- has crafted an utterly plausible character: a smart, creative and witty person entirely capable of doing everything the narrative requires of her while still behaving as a smallish child.
Moreover, Campion and Paquin permit Flora's conflict to be a simple one: she's used to having her mother all to herself and she's not especially happy when she must share her with not just one but two other people.
This choice on Campion's part -- creating a bold, complicated kid character but anchoring it within a sublimely simple character arc -- permits the kid actor Paquin to do "behave" as Flora rather than "act" each scene.
It's a risky "turn 'em loose" strategy for directing a kid actor but one which, at least here, elicits a captivating -- by turns sweet, silly, and serious -- performance from Paquin. Campion does not ask Paquin's Flora to provide the cutesy commentary for the film, nor does she depend on the char/actor to stir easy sentiment. Rather, as perhaps the most decisive character in the narrative (and the only character implicitly trusted by everyone else, for better or worse), Paquin's Flora becomes an active ingredient in the curious chemistry experiment Campion stages in The Piano, a supporting kid character that both serves the narrative requirements of the film while somehow feeling uncontrived.
Campion's clarity is all the more admirable for the ways she refuses the easy out of letting blame hover over the "blameless child". Campion neither absolves Flora for her actions, nor does she punish Flora for her part in the intimate tragedy.
Paquin's Flora is simply (like all the major characters in this film) complicated and flawed, capable of great kindness and great cruelty -- she's never "just" a kid.
As an actor, Paquin's clearly following a script (and Campion's meticulous direction) at the same that she is improvising Flora's reality in each moment.
Paquin inhabits the character with alacrity and verve, her chattery vocality creating the film's most memorable non-musical soundings. And while I think it would be a mistake to call Paquin's performance "natural" (as this is clearly a sculpted and shaped performance), Paquin's work in the role maintains an ease and spontaneity that remains impressive.
Anna Paquin's performance as Flora is an essential component of Jane Campion's extraordinary, enigmatic and haunting film and it might just be some of -- if not the -- best work by a kid actress "actressing at the edges" of the category in the 70+ years since its inception.