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The Red Violin

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4

All-Reviews.com Movie Review: The Red Violin

Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Greta Scacchi
Director: Fracois Girard
Rated: NR
RunTime: 128 Minutes
Release Date: June 1999
Genres: Drama, Foreign, Music


*Also starring: Carlo Cecchi, Jean-Luc Bideau, Sylvia Chang, Colm Feore, Jason Flemyng, Irene Grazioli, Christoph Koncz



Review by Steve Rhodes
2 stars out of 4

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 business.

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 script.

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

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