Watching THE RED VIOLIN is rather like going to your mailbox and getting
pretty picture postcards from your vacationing neighbors. As they fly
all over the globe, they send you gorgeous pictures of the places they
visit. These images may be evocative but hardly involving. You're glad
that they're having a good time, but receiving their cards isn't the
same as experiencing the joy of travel yourself.
So it is with THE RED VIOLIN. Writer Don McKellar and writer and
director François Girard, using a similar structure to the one they used
on THIRTY-TWO SHORT FILMS ABOUT GLENN GOULD, take a series-of-vignettes
approach to telling the story of a fictional famous violin. With
handsome cinematography and lush sets, the movie is a treat for the
eyes. Watching it is rather like admiring those postcards. The mind,
however, is likely to become bored, as the vignettes, save the rewarding
and fascinating one starring Samuel L. Jackson, are dull and
unimaginative. Although we have glimpses of Jackson's story along the
way, it doesn't take center stage until an hour and a half into the
movie, which will test the resolve of less patient moviegoers.
The plot is an intriguing one. A dishonest violin restorer, Charles
Morritz (Jackson), believes he has located Nicolo Bussotti's famous red
violin. Described as the "single most perfect acoustical machine" ever,
the violin has had a long and troubled history. The movie skips back to
its controversial birth in 1681 and then flashes forward and backward in
time as it traces the violin's world travels.
The stories have a few nice moments. One child prodigy trains with the
newly invented metronome. The teacher assures his student that speed
will prove his ticket to success. All the boy need do is learn how to
follow the music when the beat is at the fastest possible. The scene is
reminiscent of the one from THIS IS SPINAL TAP in which one of the band
members decides that loudness will provide their claim to fame and
fortune. The volume knob on their amplifier has a top marking of 11
rather than the normal 10, so they are assured of being the best band in
The heavily cliched characters are never on the stage long enough to
develop any depth. The filmmakers spend so much energy getting the
images and the plot structure just right that they shortchange the
One of the episodes is set in China in the slogan-happy Red Guard era.
As the comrades spout trite propaganda ("To every problem, there is a
solution"), one is struck by how similar their lines are to the rest of
the movie. The script also suffers from its absurd and labored plot
devices, which are used for transitions.
An interesting contrast can be made between THE RED VIOLIN and David
Mamet's THE WINSLOW BOY. The former, although unrated, contains a few,
generally ludicrous, scenes that would change the picture from a PG to a
R. In one, a naked violin player is lying in bed fondling his violin
for erotic pleasure. This is so off-the-wall that most audiences will
laugh at its ridiculousness. Trimming back on these few lurid scenes
would improve the movie and make it more generally accessible. Mamet
brought his picture in at a G rating. He could have thrown in some
expletives and flashed a little nudity for cheap thrills; but he didn't,
and his picture is better for it.
Only when the story drags -- and I do mean "drags" -- its way into the
present does it finally come alive. The compelling ending segment has
genuine tension and carefully crafted scripting. As Morritz schemes,
viewers will finally move to the edge of their seats. There isn't much
surprise to the action, but Jackson brings a warm and inviting humanity
to his part that the rest of the movie lacks.
The audience will probably figure out most or all of the mysteries
behind the violin. What will prove more perplexing is why the writers
couldn't have put more spark into the other parts of the film. As the
ending credits roll, the audience is left with little more than a
collection of nice postcards for their album.
THE RED VIOLIN runs too long at 2:11. The film is in Italian, German,
French and Mandarin with English subtitles and in English. It is not
rated but would be an R for brief nudity, sex, profanity and drug usage.
The film would be fine for older teenagers.
Copyright © 1999 Steve Rhodes