Anna Paquin received her first Academy Award and only nomination so far for her performance as Flora McGrath in Jane Campion's The Piano. The film itself is absolutely gorgeous, with the entire cast giving phenomenal performances under the powerful direction of Campion. In the film, Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter) and her daughter (Paquin), are sent from Ireland to the wilderness of New Zealand in an arranged marriage between Ada (who is mute) and Alistair Stewart, a frontiersman (Sam Neill). The film is all about restraint, sexuality, and repression and is one of my absolute favorite nominees, though it's hard to argue against the win in 1993 for the also amazing Schindler's List.
Best Supporting Actress has long been the home of child actors getting nominations from the Academy, between Tatum O'Neal, Mary Badham, Abigail Breslin, Jodie Foster, and even last year's nomination for Hailee Steinfeld. What is different about Paquin's nomination, at least form my perspective, is that in her film she has probably the most dialogue and is on-screen at least nearly as much as Holly Hunter's Ada. For a lot of the film she serves as the translator for her mother's signing and plays a key role at the climax of the film. So, the film forces Paquin in many ways to be the entry point into the heart of the film for the general audience, and she must maintain a certain amount of believability and liveliness to remain convincing as an eleven year old.
What Paquin manages to accomplish is easily one of the greatest child performances in the history of cinema, one that is natural and precocious while not seeming stiff or forced at all. Because of the muteness of her mother, Anna's Flora has the vivacity that Ada lacks. Every scene where Flora is being deceitful just for the fun of it show the balance Paquin has between the childish aspects of the character and the clever maturity the character possesses. Where Paquin excels is her ability to make the scenes of hidden maturity in her eleven year old character believability. For child actors, this can often be a thin line, with Tatum O'Neal and Rico Rodriguez (of Modern Family, sorry to go all TV on you guys) being great examples of actors coming off as fake and cutesy. Her facials expressions are nearly always believable and honest, never giving off any hint that she is acting, which is something you would usually take for granted in an adult performance, but is astounding for Paquin's.
Still, no matter what, there are always moments that cause you to doubt that any actual acting is going on, and though Paquin is good for the most part, she also has a few of those moments. Any scene where she was trying to be adorable gave a hint of the other child performances already mentioned, they seem more stiff and unbelievable. Some of her anger scenes are good (especially after the climactic moment), but the ones before that seemed forced. These moments can take you out of the performance and the film for a brief moment, but seconds later Anna's right back into the character and leaves you with no doubts about Flora's personality and complexity. It seems to me like the fusion of Anna Paquin's own personality and the character is most likely what makes her performance so powerful and essential to the film.
Anna Paquin's performance in The Piano is an astonishing one. She perfectly balanced the dual aspects of her character while giving a unique vocal quality and completely memorable verve to Flora McGrath. Her performance is the most memorable of the film, and holds the human heart of the film. Her few, brief lapses into over-acting and trying too hard can take you out of the film momentarily, but her performance grabs you back in moments later with its brilliance. A glorious winner. 5/5 Thelmas.