The Red Violin Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1998

Christoph Koncz

Here she is now, lot 72... the so-called 'Red Violin'.

"The Red Violin", which accounts the travel of a violin through three centuries and five countries, took three years to make the transition from script to screen. Canadian filmmakers Don McKellar (writer/director of "Last Night") and François Girard ("Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould") researched and honed their script for three years, in the hopes that their story would be both historically accurate and meticulous in detail. However, when it came time to put the task of writing aside and to begin production on their labor of love, the two filmmakers struggled to strike a balance between securing funding for their fledgling production while still retaining artistic control over the finished film.

Rejecting offers that would have seen them lose control over the film, McKellar and Girard finally attracted a pool of investors including the arts funding branch of the Canadian government, Britain's Channel Four Films, Italy's Mikado Film, and New Line International Releasing. After much effort, the film finally made its world premiere during the 1998 Venice Film Festival, where it received a standing ovation. This was then followed by its Canadian debut at the Toronto International Film Festival as the opening night gala.

This is the single most perfect acoustic machine I have ever seen.
Samuel L. Jackson

The film begins in the present at an auction of antique instruments taking place in Montreal. Among the valuable pieces up for sale is the famous Red Violin, fashioned by the hands of master craftsman Nicolo Bussotti in 1681. In attendance is Charles Morritz (Samuel L. Jackson of "The Negotiator"), a renowned musical historian brought on board by the auctioneer (Colm Feore of "City of Angels") to attest to the piece's origins. Scattered around the auction house are also a number of would-be buyers, who each have their own vested interest in acquiring the rare violin.

It's my masterpiece... I made it for our son. He will become a great musician.

Using a series of flashbacks, the film traces the journey of the Red Violin, starting from the town of Cremona in Italy in 1681. As Nicolo Bussotti (Carlo Cecchi) fashions the instrument, a gift for his as yet unborn son, his pregnant wife Anna (Irene Garzioli) is told her future by a spiritualist-- a destiny that is inexplicably intertwined with the future awaiting the uncompleted Red Violin. Setting a precedent that will become commonplace during the travel of the instrument, tragedy strikes the Bussotti household, and Nicolo loses both his wife and his unborn son during childbirth.

You must have a strong heart to play the violin.

Next stop occurs nearly a hundred years later, with the Red Violin winding up in an orphanage run by Austrian monks. One child, Kaspar Weiss (Christoph Koncz, a real-life violin virtuoso), displays exceptional abilities with the instrument, and is whisked away by a French music teacher (Jean-Luc Bideau) to receive formal training. Unfortunately, Kaspar is also afflicted with a weak heart, and this story also ends in tragedy.

You need a lot more than inspiration to play violin.

Another hundred years pass and the Red Violin ends up in the hands of a volatile but brilliant composer, Frederick Pope (Jason Flemyng of "Rob Roy"). However, the instrument's stay is short-lived as the relationship between Pope and novelist Victoria Byrd (Greta Scacchi of "Presumed Innocent") sours, leading to misfortune yet again.

Liu Zi Feng

The instrument then winds its way to Shanghai, where it languishes for many years in a pawn shop until it is purchased by an upper class Chinese family for their daughter. The daughter, Xiang Pei (Taiwanese films star Sylvia Chang), grows up and soon finds herself caught in the throes of the Cultural Revolution of the Sixties. Unwilling to let her fervent Maoist contemporaries burn the 'bourgeois' instrument, she leaves the Red Violin in the hands of her music teacher (Liu Zi Feng) where it remains hidden until his death.

Is our little red violin 'the' Red Violin?

Finally, in the present day, the instrument comes to the attention of Morritz, who must authenticate the Red Violin through a series of scientific tests. However, as he comes closer to discovering the truth of the enigmatic instrument, he too begins to fall under the Red Violin's bewitching spell.

You will attract many admirers, wanting to win you hand.

While "The Red Violin" is an ambitious and scenic undertaking, the film lacks the narrative drive or thematic undercurrent to make it an exceptional film. The four stories of the violin's various owners are somewhat interesting, though far from compelling. Unfortunately, the only emotional cues of the film are provided by the film's impressive soundtrack, and not by the story or dialogue themselves. Despite the noble intentions of the script, the film overall lacks any emotional hooks and does not crescendo to a discernible payoff.

The perfect marriage of science and beauty... an impossible thing.
Greta Scacchi and Jason Flemyng

One of the main reasons for the film's failings is the focus of its efforts. Girard and McKellar's screenplay focuses on the auction, gradually revealing the motivations of the numerous attendees bidding for ownership of the Red Violin. While the deconstruction of this pivotal event is an intriguing framing device for the film and certainly may contribute to some 'gee-whiz' moments, it does not allow the audience to have a vested interest in any of the characters, especially the roughly sketched character of Morritz. Had the focus of the story had been on Morritz's investigation of the Red Violin, with his character flaws and struggles juxtaposed against the fates of the violin's previous owners, perhaps then the story would have had the emotional impact and dramatic vigor that it was sorely lacking. As is, the only question raised in the minds of its audience is 'so what?'.

Narrative concerns aside, the technical credits and production values are exquisite in this film, with a meticulous attention to detail in each of the five time periods that the story takes place. The film's score, dominated by passionate violin renditions, serves as an excellent aural backdrop to the various episodes, matching the musical style of each setting.

While "The Red Violin" does have a certain epic quality to it, it is not particularly engaging or profound. And though the film is superbly crafted in visuals and accompaniments, the missed opportunities in the film's narrative were numerous and glaring, and I left the theater wanting more.

Images courtesy of Rhombus Media. All rights reserved.

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