Francois Girard's Academy Award winning 1998 film The Red Violin is a fascinating portrait of one man's obsession and lust over a single material possession told in a stylish and engrossing manner and set to a truly moving score.
The picture tells the story of Charles Morritz (Samuel L. Jackson), a man who makes a comfortable living as an expert appraiser of rare and antique musical instruments. He's thrilled when he attends an auction held in Montreal and finds up for bid a one of a kind red Nicolas Bussotti violin. As we follow the auction, well timed flashback scenes reveal over the course of centuries the true story behind the supposed rare and valuable specimen and also show how possessing this instrument has affected the lives of all its past owners. Eventually, Morritz learns the truth about the instrument and must decide for himself what to do about it.
Those who only know Samuel L. Jackson from his post Pulp Fiction work, where he's shown a knack for chewing through scenery and overacting, will likely be quite surprised by his very restrained and admirable performance in this film. Granted, he's surrounded by an excellent supporting cast made up by the likes of Don McKeller, Gretta Sacchi, and Jason Flemyng, but Jackson really is excellent in this film particularly when he finds himself forced to decide. He's incredibly believable as Morritz and brings a wonderful sense of both pride and sympathy to the character and as such, really delivers a great performance.
While the plot may sound overly simple, almost like a musical version of Paddle To The Sea, this simplicity is actually quite suspenseful. McKellar and Girard's script keeps us guessing as to how this violin will affect people in the next scene and also as to its true origins. Predictions made in the past can and do come true in fascinating ways years on down the road and it's amazing how such a simple tale is told on such a grand, almost epic level. The ending considerably more tense than the plot synopsis can really employ and the way in which the violin travels through history is told with style, wit, and intelligence.
Visually the film is near-perfect. The camera work is smooth and graceful and almost musical in a way. What we see fits perfectly with what we hear and the score adds an incredible amount of dramatic tension to the picture and punctuates that various emotions that are felt not only by the characters in the film but also by the viewing audience. While an independent Canadian arthouse film about a violin might not sound like a particularly interesting idea for a film, there's so much more at work here than a simple history lesson that this film is likely going to appeal to and charm anyone with a remote appreciation for cinema.
The Red Violin is presented in a nice 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. There's a fine coat of grain and the occasional minutes spec of print damage if you want to look for it but this is otherwise a very nice effort from Lionsgate. There aren't any compression artifacts or edge enhancement issues to complain about and the lush color scheme of the film comes across very nicely. A few of the darker scenes lose some of the fine detail in the shadows but for the most part this is a sharp and appropriately film-like transfer.
Lionsgate has supplied English audio tracks in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound and Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo with optional subtitles provided in English and Spanish. The 5.1 track is the way to go if you're equipped for it as it adds quite a bit more depth to the film particularly by the way in which it spreads out the score. Dialogue is always nice and clear and there aren't any problems with hiss or distortion. Bass response is a little subdued but that's likely the way that the film has always sounded. All in all, there's nothing to complain about here, the movie sounds great.
The most interesting supplement on this release is a commentary track with director/co-writer Francois Girard and co-writer Don McKeller. Anyone familiar with McKeller's output, be it the projects he did with Bruce McDonald or otherwise, knows that he's an intelligent, artistic, and rather quirky guy and his commentary here with Girard cements that. However, this is an interesting and insightful track that goes a long way towards detailing pretty much every aspect of this production and its history. The pair explores the origins of the story and the writing process and also talks about the importance of casting the right people in the film. They cover changes that the story went through and discuss what it was like making the picture. There are a couple of spots with a little bit of dead air but they're few and far between and overall this proves to be an insightful listen.
From there, check out a featurette entitled The Auction Block (17:52) which explores the collector's market for Stradivarius Violins. This featurette also explores the real incident involving a Stradivarius that was missing for two hundred years that inspired this film. Interviews with experts and footage from violin auctions show how important some of these instruments really are to violin aficionados.
Also included is an interview with Academy Award winning composer John Corigliano entitled Chaconne (16:00). He explains the importance of a film score and how he personally goes about creating music for movies.
The film's theatrical trailer (2:26, the only supplement not presented in anamorphic widescreen), animated menus and chapter stops round out the package. The keepcase sits inside a cardboard slipcase that features identical artwork and text.
A truly unique and often times almost hypnotic piece of cinema, The Red Violin is a fascinating and beautifully made film that explores the depths of obsession and all that they entail. Great extras and very nice audio and video quality seal the deal - highly recommended. Here's hoping we're treated to more releases of this caliber from Lionsgate's Meridian Collection line soon.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.