by Cathleen Myers
This is both the year’s prettiest costume picture and perhaps the most daring and experimental film of 1999. Directed by Francois Girard, who co-wrote the screenplay with Don McKellar, The Red Violin tells the story of a priceless violin and the tragic, ironic, and romantic adventures that befall its various owners: It is a multi-lingual movie with a storyline spanning four centuries, five countries and five languages. If you’re thinking, "Oh, God, not another Farinelli!" be assured that The Red Violin, while it has plenty of eye and ear candy, also has a well-constructed and intriguing plot.
With two frame stories – one in the present, the other in the 17th century, we follow the "career" of a Cremona violin of rare beauty and peerless tone from the Italian craftsman’s workshop where it was created through its various owners down through the centuries. We see the violin pass into the hands of an orphan child prodigy whose ambitious coach thinks he may be the next Mozart; then stolen by gypsies, who eventually sell it to Byronic composer and violin virtuoso Lord Frederick Pope, whose Chinese servant takes it back to his native land, where, two generation later, the violin’s very existence is threatened by Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Eventually, the Red Violin, as historians now call it, ends up on the auction block in Canada at a sale of rare antique instruments, where the world’s leading "musical detective" and ancient instrument expert (Samuel Jackson playing a very different kind of Action Hero!) ponders its fate. Who of the various bidders – all with an ancestral claim to the violin – will end up becoming its next owner? And what is the secret of the violin’s unusual color and almost human tone? Of course, we won’t tell you but the film builds to a wonderfully suspenseful and wholly satisfying climax.
The screenplay’s multi-language approach works marvelously well for the international cast is allowed to act in his or her native language. Even filmgoers who are ordinarily allergic to films with subtitles may enjoy this one because not only are the subtitles unobtrusively used, but much of the film is in English, including the entire Frederick Pope story and most of Samuel Jackson’s scenes. If you have a smattering of French, Italian and German, you’ll find after a while that you barely need the subtitles, and the Mandarin scenes are so poignantly acted and suspenseful that you hardly notice you’re reading subtitles.
While the movie was made on a relatively small budget, there is no skimping on production values or costumes. Renee April’s period costumes are both colorful and accurate - quite a feat considering the four centuries the film spans. One remembers especially the little Mozartian court suit for child prodigy Caspar Weiss and the chic 1890’s tailored suits of Pope’s romance novelist mistress. Music lovers will adore the movie – which is almost a "musical" for the violin (ravishingly played by Joshua Bell, backed by the London Philharmonic). The lovely original score by John Corigliano ranges from a Vivaldi-like Baroque violin concerto (for the orphaned music students to practice) to a Mozartian show-off piece for young Caspar to a Lisztiian Fantasia (for Pope’s 1890 concert) to a jaunty little Maoist ditty for the PRC children’s song and dance number.
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