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Lions Gate presents
The Red Violin (1998)

"Is our little red violin the Red Violin?"
- Mme. Leroux (Monique Mercure)

Review By: Mark Zimmer  
Published: June 02, 2008

Stars: Samuel L. Jackson, Caclo Cecchi, Irene Grazioli, Jean-Luc Bideau, Greta Scacchi
Other Stars: Jason Flemyng, Sylvia Chang, Colm Feore, Don McKellar
Director: François Girard

MPAA Rating: R for some sexuality
Run Time: 02h:10m:00s
Release Date: June 03, 2008
UPC: 031398240808
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A AA-A- A-

DVD Review

Following up on the success of their kaleidoscopic musical biography Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993) writer/director Franc¸ois Girard and co-writer Don McKellar turned to the musical biography of a fictional musical instrument. Following a legendary violin from its creation amidst heartbreak and tragedy through its travels and travails across several continents, to its modern manifestation, the story offers many twists and turns that jumps across nations, languages and centuries with ease. Cleverly constructed and tied closely to a passion for music, The Red Violin remains a memorable and entrancing viewing (and listening) experience.

Beginning in 1681, the violin is created by Cremona master Niccolo Busotti (Carlo Cecchi) in the wake of the death of his beloved wife Anna (Irene Grazioli). The story moves on to 18th-century Austria as teacher Georges Poussin (Jean-Luc Bideau) greedily tries to cultivate child prodigy Kaspar Weiss (Christoph Koncz), who is strangely connected to the violin, with tragic consequences. From there the violin passes to rakish Paganini figure Frederick Polk (Jason Flemyng), who ties the violin to sexuality and physical passion as well as nearly demonic performance. Voyaging to China as Polk pays off an opium debt, we see the violin in danger of being destruction in the Cultural Revolution's mad Bonfire of the Vanities, with Xiang Pei trying desperately to save the instrument. Tying the piece together are both a modern and a 17th-century story, which are repeatedly intercut with the others. The storyline of the past entails a tarot reading for the doomed Anna by servant Cesca (Anita Laurenzi) for her unborn child, though it soons become clear that the reading is in fact for the instrument. The modern tale traces both the auction of the violin, seen from different points of view based upon the preceding episodes, and the quest of musical instrument expert Charles Morritz (Samuel L. Jackson) to determine whether this is indeed the notorious Red Violin and authenticate it for auction.

The violin is an albatross of sorts, carrying a curse, as most of the characters meet with tragedy. But there's also vibrant life amidst the death, symbolized by the passion of the music that the Red Violin inspires and the fiery red of its varnish (which increasingly wears off as time passes in the film, though the fiddle loses none of its power in the process). That's most clearly seen in the Polk episode, with its connection to physical passion, but above all it's a determined affection for music and its transcendental power.

That notion is deftly emphasized by the film's use of language: in each episode the characters speak their appropriate tongues, leaving us in subtitled Italian, French, German, and Chinese as well as English for the Polk and modern episodes. Despite the inability to communicate, underlined by Kaspar's training in French when he speaks only German, is overridden by the violin's romantic ability to surpass language if not rational thought itself. It's pure emotion, with John Corigliano's amazing score keeping that front and center; despite often using Baroque and Classical styles, there's constantly a passionate undercurrent that keeps even those ordinarily bored by the Baroque enthralled.

The intercutting of stories requires a certain amount of dot-connecting from the viewer; often obscure or tangential references will connect the episodes and the evolutions of the violin's travels. It doesn't, however, feel forced in its associations, but they tie nicely with Cesca's tarot readings. The unity smacks of fate and destiny, but that's certainly in line with the romantically fueled tales that affect the violin and those who play it and desire it.

The performances are uniformly excellent, from the amazing young Koncz to Sylvia Chang's frightened efforts to rescue the instrument, to the fascinating casting of Jackson against type as an expert violin antiquarian. Co-writer Don McKellar also appears in amusing role as Evan Williams, whose main desire for the violin is to dismantle it and examine it scientifically to figure out how it works.

At its heart, though, this is a tale of the love of music and the vibrancy that it has for those who appreciate it and those who make it. While nearly bereft of action of any kind, it will be fascinating to anyone whose soul can respond deeply to music. Those who cannot may be left utterly cold and confused.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Although the 1999 disc from Universal looked pretty good in its day, that day was nearly ten years ago and compression artistry has come a long way since. The improvement is substantial, with the darker areas and shadows coming across more cleanly and with fewer aliasing and moiré issues. Color seems a bit less drab and brown as well, with good detail and texture. Edge enhancement seems minimal.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: Stereo and 5.1 DD tracks are included and they're fine, with nice depth, directionality and presence. The violin performances (played by Joshua Bell) have nicely piercing immediacy that is quite pleasing. DTS fans will be distressed, however, to learn that the DTS audio track from the 1999 disc is nowhere to be found here.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 24 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
2 Documentaries
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Franc¸ois Girard, Don McKellar
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase in sl
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extras Review: Where the 1999 disc was nearly bare bones, this "Meridian Collection" edition offers some significant extras that go well beyond standard EPK material. Co-writers Girard and McKellar give a thoughtful commentary that traces many of the sources of the story and the thoughts behind the various transitions and decisions made in the scripting and editing process, as well as offering numerous interesting anecdotes. It's quite listenable and offers significant content and will please anyone interested in the feature. Some of the most fascinating bits include how they managed to get the thoroughly unmusical Flemyng to be able to convincingly play the violin, and the amazing sequence in which a series of gypsies play the violin rambunctiously while it stays rock solid in the center of the screen.

Two documentaries are present as well, the first of which, The Auction Block (17m:52s) discusses the Stradivarius "The Red Mendelssohn," which served as the inspiration for the film. Its present owner, violinist Elizabeth Pitcairn, talks about its history and plays a few pieces in snippets. The auction history of Strads is also touched upon, with a brief discussion of the questions that persist about what makes these such extraordinary instruments. The second documentary is a chat with composer John Corigliano about his Oscar-winning score and the chaconne that tracks throughout the film, based upon seven chords. Bell also pipes in with a few comments about the music, and it's interesting to hear Corigliano's approach to scoring such a diverse presentation. The extras are rounded out by an oddly nonanamorphic widescreen trailer for the movie. Purists may object to the use of player-generated subtitles instead of the theatrical burned-in subtitles.

Extras Grade: A-


Final Comments

While not for everyone, The Red Violin speaks to anyone conversant in or has a love of the language of music. Passionate and complex, it's endlessly fascinating and this remastered edition presents a cleaner edition with some intriguing extras.


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