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After a long voyage from Scotland, pianist Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter) and her young daughter, Flora (Anna Paquin), are left with all their belongings, including a piano, on a New Zealand beach. Ada, who has been mute since childhood, has been sold into marriage to a local man named Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill). Making little attempt to warm up to Alisdair, Ada soon becomes intrigued by his Maori-friendly acquaintance, George Baines (Harvey Keitel), leading to tense, life-altering conflicts.