Universal // 1999 // 132 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Chief Justice Sean McGinnis (Retired) // January 10th, 2000
An instrument of passion. A shocking secret. An extraordinary journey.
The Red Violin is a lush, sumptuous piece of filmmaking. François Girard and Don McKellar deserve plenty of credit for this masterpiece of filmmaking. It is easily one of the best films of 1999, and also one of my favorite discs.
I had been anxiously awaiting this DVD for some time, based on TV spots I had seen. It looked like a promising film, as far as I could tell. It is that and a whole lot more. Director François Girard has delivered one of the finest films of the year and if this film is not nominated for several Academy Awards, I will never forgive Universal, because it is definitely worthy of recognition. So worthy, in fact, the film nearly swept last year's Canadian Genie Awards, our northern friends' variant of the Oscars, where it won for Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume, Direction, Best Picture, Score, Overall Sound and Screenplay. It was also nominated for Editing and Sound Editing awards. Guess ya can't win 'em all.
The Red Violin tells the story of a perfect violin created by a master for his unborn child, who is to be a child prodigy with the instrument. Unfortunately, mother and child die during childbirth, but not before the mother consults with a fortune-teller/maidservant about her future. The film tracks the movement of the violin through time and space until we find it on the auction block in modern day Canada, where an authentication expert is appraising its value.
The violin is followed from the hands of its creator to a child prodigy in an orphanage. From there, the instrument makes its way to England and the hands of a virtuoso, then to China at the turn of the century. Finally, the violin finds the shores of Canada where it is to be auctioned off as part of a collection saved from the Cultural Revolution by a music teacher who knows the difference between western art and corruption.
These stories are tied together by the use of two distinct framing devices. Between each segment, we are treated to either a visit backward to the fortune-telling scene or forward to the auction process, or sometimes both. These two devices help tie each disparate segment together in beautiful fashion, the former shedding light on the nature of the instrument, the latter introducing us to each bidder and their connection with the upcoming segment of the film, as well as the violin itself.
The production is undoubtedly ambitious. It spans over three centuries from the violin's birth in 1681 in Cremona, Italy to modern day Montreal. The sweeping vistas and lush surroundings are wonderfully captured by the work of Girard and his cinematographer, Alain Dostie. Dostie's camera lingers like the eye of a lustful lover across the room to grand mountain retreats and lush English forests. The visual aspect of this film cannot be overstated. There are some wonderful shots here, such as when we follow the child prodigy into Vienna and are treated to his wide-eyed lust for fame set against a reflection in the carriage window of the architectural brilliance of that city.
But as one would expect, the musical background of the film is first and foremost in our minds. Being a film about an instrument, this should come as no surprise. Thankfully, the film's creators have not taken the easy way out and populated the film with the standards of the instrument. Instead, they hired John Corigliano to provide an original score and Joshua Bell to perform it. This was no mistake. The score is hauntingly beautiful and helps set the perfect mood at nearly every turn.
Not inconsequentially, the actors here are wonderful as well. Carlo Cecchi and Irene Grazioli are marvelous as the violinmaker and his wife. Anita Laurenzi is perfect as the fortune telling maidservant. We are stuck on her every word. Cristoph Koncz is wonderfully unassuming as the boy prodigy Kaspar Weiss, as is Jean-Luc Bideau as his teacher Poussin. Sylvia Chang is convincing as a music-loving new revolutionary who risks her life to save the instrument. Colm Feore is utterly believable and wonderful as the auctioneer. And Samuel L. Jackson does some of his best work (in my opinion) as the authentication expert dealing with the Chinese collection.
The disc's video is presented in a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer and is absolutely stunning in every way. The presentation is fairly dark and lit in a low-key fashion, which is to be expected from a period piece such as this. Even the modern day shots, though, are quite dark. The piece utilizes a very earthy color palette, including lots of browns and greens. There is only a slight film grain present, which only adds to the experience. The picture is totally devoid of any artifacts, digital or otherwise. Shadow detail is terrific and fleshtones are dead on. Very high marks for the team at Universal.
The disc includes a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track, which is set as the default track. Also included is a DTS 5.1 channel track, which must be selected from the language portion of the main menu. In a nice touch, Universal alerts you that you must have a DTS output equipped DVD player and decoder in place to hear the DTS track, and then prompts you if you want to continue with that track. This screen is defaulted to "no" and you must manually choose "yes" to continue. Once selected, the DTS trailer plays and you're off with the film in DTS.
Overall the soundtrack presentation is wonderful. The surrounds are used appropriately and dialogue is clear and intelligible. The forward soundstage is deep and wide. The LFE channel is used sparingly. The violins present in the soundtrack are wonderfully employed, and the different musical styles used to represent different times and places throughout the film provide a welcome break from the use of a single theme, which was a second option the composer could have used. The DTS soundtrack sounded a bit better to me, but not so much so that I would recommend a new receiver or player if yours is not so equipped.
I can point to only minor disagreements with the creative team here. First, I might have chosen someone other than Jackson to portray the expert. Not that Jackson does a poor job, because he doesn't. In fact, it may be some of his best work. But, I felt shocked out of my trance a bit when he entered the film. I think this type of film would have worked best with a cast that was fully unrecognizable. Whether that is because of the scope of its coverage or because of some other unknown issue, I can't be sure. I just know that is how I felt.
My other niggling complaint occurs during the montage with the Gypsies who take the violin to England through the European countryside. During the 60 second or so shot we are treated to a filming device where the camera is fixed on a rotating dolly of sorts along with the gypsy playing the violin. What we get as a result is a musician (several musicians, actually) fixed in front of the camera while the point of view changes around a central axis. I felt it was an annoying device to use and it totally took me out of the film. I'm not sure the technical label of this type of shot, but I can tell you I despise it. It evoked no emotion in me other than bewilderment at why it was used.
My only other complaint is the lack of extras. It would have been very nice to have a commentary track with McKellar and Girard explaining their work here. I also would have liked to hear from cinematographer Dostie as well and maybe even a few of the actors. I understand that space was probably limited due to the dual soundtrack included. While this can be viewed as an admirable experiment, I would have much preferred separate discs with more extras than a single disc with both soundtracks.
This is clearly one of the best films of the year, and deserves to be recognized as such. If this film doesn't receive Oscar nominations for writing, score and cinematography at least, then I know either the fix was in, or Universal/Lions Gate was asleep at the wheel.
You owe it to yourself to at least rent this film. It is well worth the 2+ hours of your time. I highly recommend it as a purchase as well, if for no other reason than to compare DTS and Dolby Digital soundtracks.
All our neighbors to the North, beware. THIS IS NOT THE ALLIANCE RELEASE, but rather the Universal release. The Alliance release does not measure up to this disc in so many ways, it would be difficult to count them all. Stay away, and make sure you grab the Universal release.
Film is acquitted. Girard and company are encouraged to continue down this path of creation. The cast is given the month off to reflect on the gem they have mutually created. Universal is thanked for including a DTS and Dolby Digital track on the same film, but admonished to include more supplements or else issue the discs as separate entities.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* DTS 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 132 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Soundtrack Advertisement
* Production Notes
* Cast and Filmmakers
* Theatrical Trailer
* Official Site
* Another Samuel L. Jackson Page