Sunday 22 May 2022

Movie Review: The Red Violin (1998)

An ambitious multi-story epic, The Red Violin traces a musical instrument's 300 year history. Narrative twists, elegant storytelling, and visual beauty combine to craft a masterpiece.

In Cremona, Italy, of 1681, violin maker Nicolo Bussotti saves his best creation as a gift for his soon-to-be-born child, hoping his offspring will become a great musician. Nicolo's pregnant wife Anna is worried about the future, and asks her clairvoyant servant for a Tarot reading. The violin is subsequently painted a deep red.

In 1793, the red violin is used for music lessons at an orphanage in the Austrian alps. The monks notice that young orphan Kaspar Weiss has prodigious talent. Benefactor Poussin relocates Kaspar to Vienna and starts training him for his big debut in front of the city's elites.

In 1890, the red violin belongs to English virtuoso Lord Frederick Pope (Jason Flemyng). He performs stunning compositions, drawing inspiration from spirited sex sessions with his lover Victoria (Greta Scacchi), a writer. When she departs for Russia, Pope sinks into a depression. The lovers continue corresponding and eventually Victoria decides to return to England, but a surprise awaits.

Shanghai in the late 1960s is gripped by the Cultural Revolution, and western symbols are unwelcome. Music teacher Zhou Yuan is fond of violins and classical western music, but is in danger of being arrested. Political officer Xiang Pei publicly defends him, then secretly asks him to care for the red violin, which was a gift from her mother.

In the Montreal-set modern-day story linking all the others, the red violin is up for auction. Charles Morritz (Samuel L. Jackson) is the auction house appraiser, and in the lead up to the sale he works with researcher Evan Williams (Don McKellar) to confirm the violin's origins. When the auctioneer (Colm Feore) starts the session, the room is full of people interested in bidding, but Charles has a plan.

A Canadian production directed by Fran├žois Girard and co-written with actor McKellar, The Red Violin succeeds in both scope and audacity. The potential inherent weakness of recounting five stories linked only by an inanimate object is cleverly overcome, thanks to the intersection of the capstone auction chapter (the present influenced by the past) with the Tarot reading (the past forecasting the future). But most notable is the storytelling courage, featuring feints at traditional directions then sharp pivots into more startling territory.

The Tarot cards tease out the violin's murky future, rather than pregnant Anna's destiny. Music as a force more powerful than life itself emerges as an overarching theme, Girard and McKellar not shying away from the unexpected demise of key characters as long as the resilient instrument soldiers on. And not satisfied with spanning 300 years, events also spin across the globe from Europe to Asia and North America, celebrating music's globalism. Often magnificent Alain Dostie cinematography forges a sense a time and place, enhancing Girard's eye for framing.

The script stays on its toes and takes delight in disrupting the best plans of mere mortals: violin maker Bussotti has grandiose dreams for his child; benefactor Poussin plots a pathway to riches on the tender shoulders of his discovery. Fate has other ideas, and by dashing hopes and dreams more than once, The Red Violin laments life's fragility and finds comfort in music's essential role tying together the collective human experience.

In-between the short stories, Girard marks the passage of time with interludes showing the red violin adding communal joy. In the orphanage for more than 100 years, the violin is the centrepiece instrument. In the hands of gypsies for another century, the violin adds a festive soundtrack to nomadism. Simple joys, after all, are the true pleasures between milestone events.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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