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Case Number 13756

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The Red Violin: Meridian Collection

Lionsgate // 1998 // 130 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Erich Asperschlager // June 3rd, 2008

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All Rise...

Judge Erich Asperschlager's failed childhood attempted to learn violin has absolutely no bearing on what he thought of this film.

Editor's Note

Our review of The Red Violin, published January 10th, 2000, is also available.

The Charge

"A curse hangs over you, madame. Danger to those who come under your thrall…and there will be many."

Opening Statement

Lionsgate launches its Meridian Collection of "acclaimed, ground-breaking and influential films from around the world" with a remastered version of François Girard's 1998 Oscar-winner, The Red Violin. The film is a textbook example of all style and no substance, but what style there is almost makes up for the narrative shortcomings—especially with this stunning re-release.

Facts of the Case

The Red Violin tells the story of how a "perfect" instrument traveled from the late-17th Century workshop of its Italian creator, to an auction house in Montreal some three centuries later. As the violin passes through time, it passes through many hands—from a frail child prodigy in an Austrian orphanage, to an English virtuoso with a unique method of composition, to the middle of the Cultural Revolution in China, to an expert who's willing to do anything to learn its dark secrets.

The Evidence

Coming off the success of Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, director François Girard and co-writer Don McKellar found themselves beset by studio demands for another vignette film focused on a musician. Rather than tread the same ground, the filmmakers decided to take a different route—telling the life story of an instrument instead of a person.

The Red Violin goes to great lengths to give its central character human qualities, especially through its connection to Busotti's wife, whose encounter with a fortune teller provides the primary narration and continuity through the different sections of the film. This decision is also the source of the film's biggest problem. As much as Girard and McKellar want the audience to personify the violin, it's still an inanimate object—a prop used by characters we don't get enough time with to care about.

The Red Violin is divided into five sections, but the focus is mostly on the present day, in which Samuel L. Jackson (Unbreakable) plays antique instrument expert Charles Morritz, brought in to examine a collection being readied for auction. We return to the climactic auction sequence between vignettes, building slowly, adding characters and suspense until the film's final minutes.

The problem is that by relying so heavily on the Montreal storyline and the mystery surrounding the violin's creation, Girard doesn't give the other stories enough time to develop. We meet characters like Frederick Pope (Jason Flemyng, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels)—a fictional English violinist based on classical "rock stars" like Paganini—and his lover/muse Victoria (Greta Scacchi, The Player), only to rocket past to the next vignette after about 15 minutes, all while Jackson's portion of the plot gets the full final third of the film to play out. Despite its lackluster resolution, the central mystery is fairly interesting; it's just not interesting enough—nor is Jackson's irritable Morritz compelling enough—to justify shortchanging the characters in the other vignettes.

But even with pacing and character problems, The Red Violin's strength is the masterful composition by John Corigliano—for which he won the Best Music Oscar—and the performance of the Philharmonia Orchestra with soloist Joshua Bell front and center. Every time we hear the red violin being played, it's Bell—a decision made not only to hide actors' inexperience with the instrument, but also to maintain a consistent "voice" for the film's central character.

An Oscar-winning score deserves a worthy audio presentation, and Lionsgate delivers. The new surround mix creates a dynamic audio experience, not only for the music, but also the sound design and effects.

This Meridian Collection debut is notable not only for providing an exceptional listening experience, but a visual experience as well. The newly remastered transfer of the film is stunning, filled with rich darks, bright colors, and exceptional detail. From the interior of Busotti's workshop to an opulent Viennese palace, to a packed English concert hall, everything is crisp and perfectly lit—transmitting as much location detail as DVD is able to allow.

While The Red Violin's 1999 DVD debut was a bare bones release, this new version has a nice slate of extras. The centerpiece is a feature-length commentary which brings Girard and McKellar back to the film after nearly a decade. They trade off stories and ideas, explaining both what they were trying to do as well as what it took to bring the story to the screen. For instance, how footage of Jason Flemyng—chosen for his acting, not musical, ability—playing the red violin required a difficult bodily arrangement of Flemyng acting and Joshua Bell actually playing the violin, at the same time and in such a way that Bell's hands look like they belong to the actor.

The other two extras are "The Auction Block," the story of the "Red Mendelssohn" Stradivari—which loosely inspired the instrument in the film—which went in auction for $1.7 Million; and a featurette about how Corigliano composed the film score.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

It's difficult to recommend a film that scores so highly on visuals and music, but just plain falls flat in the story department. There's certainly enough in The Red Violin to maintain interest between the beautiful music and promise of mystery, though the experience does not linger much past the closing credits.

One thing the 1999 release has that this DVD does not is an optional DTS audio track. I don't know whether it makes a lick of difference. The mix in this Lionsgate release is so good, I doubt it does.

In order to maintain a sense of geographical authenticity, there are a variety of languages spoken in the film—so most of the film is subtitled. If you don't mind reading your way through movies (I don't), then it's no big deal. If, however, you avoid foreign films for this reason, you might not want to slog through the non-English speaking portions of the film. Those of you fluent in Italian, German, French, English, and Chinese may, of course, disregard the previous paragraph.

Closing Statement

The Red Violin is, ultimately, a disappointing film. Its stunning cinematography and stirring soundtrack aren't enough to overcome paper-thin characters and a scattered narrative. Still, Lionsgate has done a commendable job with the audiovisual presentation in this Meridian Collection disc, giving fans of the film a definitive DVD release.

The Verdict

The opening bid is "Not Guilty." Do I hear anyone for "Not Guilty"? Anyone at all?

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Scales of Justice

Video: 98
Audio: 98
Extras: 80
Acting: 85
Story: 75
Judgment: 80

Perp Profile

Studio: Lionsgate
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• Spanish
Running Time: 130 Minutes
Release Year: 1998
MPAA Rating: Rated R
• Concerts and Musicals
• Drama

Distinguishing Marks

• Audio Commentary With Co-Writer/Director François Girard and Co-Writer Don McKellar
• "The Oscar-Winning Chaconne"
• "The Auction Block"


• IMDb
• Original DVD Verdict Review

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