Directed By: Francois Girard
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Greta Scacchi, Jason Flemyng, Don McKellar
The Red Violin follows the life of a beautiful and seductive violin through a tumultuous three centuries. An interesting but ultimately mediocre movie. Technically it’s a near perfect performance, to make a musical analogy, which seems appropriate, but it lacks soul.
In 17th century Cremona a master violin maker, Nicolo Bussotti (Carlo Cecchi), a fictionalized Antonio Stradivari, the real Cremona master violin maker, is building his masterpiece. A perfect instrument to be passed on to his soon to be born child. His wife, Anna (Irene Grazioli) has her fortune told by an old family servant. The fortune promises a long life full of passion and tragedy. Only the fortune turns out not to be Anna’s, but the violin’s. Anna has difficulties in childbirth and she and the child die. In grief Nicolo finishes the violin and then he passes out of the story.
The violin then finds it’s way to an orphanage in a monastery where is passes through a succession of orphans until after a hundred years it lands in the hands of Kasper Weiss (Christoph Koncz). The monks are so impressed by Kasper they send for a Vienna patron they believe will help the young boy achieve his promise. In steps Georges Poussin(Jean-Luc Bideau) a Mozart like figure who takes the boy back to Vienna to train him. Unfortunately Poussin is in financial straights and can ill afford another member in his household no matter how talented. An opportunity comes up for Kasper to win the support of the Prince. The Prince wishes to find a prodigy to travel with him to Prussia and is holding an audition in three weeks. After three weeks of coaching by Poussin Kasper is a sure winner but the violin has other plans.
After a lengthy respite the violin ends up traveling with a band of gypsies through several generations where it ends up crossing the English Channel and comes to the attention of an Oxford Paganini type named Frederick Pope (Jason Flemyng). Pope, already a virtuoso, becomes enthralled with the violin and with the inspiration of his lover Victoria (Greta Scacchi) soars to new heights of creativity. Of course the violin’s journey is not over, from Oxford it travels with Pope’s manservant to China where it becomes mixed up in the Cultural Revolution and after many years ends up in a Montreal auction house which calls in Charles Morritz (Samuel Jackson), from New York, to authenticate a collection of instruments the Red Chinese Government has come into the possession of and wishes to liquidate. Morritz is instantly seduced by the violin just as everyone else who has come into contact with it.
The story is not told in strict chronological order, it moves back and forth like the tide slowly making it’s way in. I would make a more appropriate musical analogy here but I can’t remember the term. After each little vignette the story flashes forward to the auction house a moment or two before where we left it and then flashes back to reveal a little bit more of Anna’s and the violin’s fortune. So that each time a little bit more of each story is told. The acting is strong throughout. Samuel Jackson turns in a more subdued, more subtle turn than usual. Christoph Koncz is simply wonderful as Kasper Weiss and Jason Flemyng plays a great over the top Frederick Pope, but it’s really silly to single out any one performance as they are all great. The cinematography is suberb, filmed on location in Cermona, Vienna, Oxford, Shanghai and Montreal, Francios really uses the language of film to propel the story forward.
It’s really a bit of a puzzle why the film fails to move. I think it’s the theme of the story. At it’s heart it’s a morality tale. At times I found myself thinking of movies like Creep Show or Cat’s Eye where everybody gets what they got coming. The only problem with that is that in the words of Will Munny in Unforgiven “We all got it coming kid.” The filmmakers are shooting for high art and they get all the elements and trappings right but just miss the mark.
This is a great transfer. I looked for artifacts or jaggies or blooming and never noticed any. Even the white titles are sharp, nearly completely white and display only minimal aliasing. It looks great, but there is no excuse for a modern movie on DVD not to look great.
The audio is presented in a Dobly Digital 5.1 mix. The mix is excellent which you would kind of expect in a movie where music plays such an important part. At this point I have to point out just how great the music is. The score by John Corigliano is masterful, mimicking the contemporary music of each period but melodically and thematically all ties together. The solo violin work is performed by Joshua Bell and is simply beautiful, at times breathtaking. There are subtitles in English and Spanish.
The Packaging and Bonus Features
The DVD packaging looks great. It’s comes in a standard DVD case in a cardboard slipcase. The artwork kind of falls into the floating head category but it still manages to be striking and attractive. There are a moderate amount of bonus material. There are a couple of little featurettes about the Red Mendelssohn a real violin which was the inspiration for the movie and one about the composition of the music for the movie. There is also a pretty good commentary by the director and writer of the movie. The title screens are pretty cool as well.
In Douglas Adam’s Life the Universe and Everything a spaceship crashes on a pre-spaceflight planet. It turns out the ship was not even capable of flight but was constructed entirely with the purpose of showing a clever person how to build a real spaceship. This movie is kind of like that. It falls emotionally flat but it’s got all the elements of a great film. Of course the music is wonderful and almost worth the price just for that alone, but it would be kind of silly to buy the DVD for that when you could just get the soundtrack.
Overall (Not an Average) 7/10
The Movie 6/10
The Video 7/10
The Audio 8/10
The Packaging and Bonus Features 8/10
Overall (Not an Average) 7/10