Red Violin,The/B+,A

Universal/1999/133m/ANA 1.85

 ISF Reference DVD Selection

     This is very high-toned material, tastefully presented. The quintet of tales all arise from the birth of a very special violin in Cremona, Italy. They trace the path of the violin from tragic inception to auction, moving from Cremona  to Vienna ,the capital of music,  through the hands of gypsies in England and on to Mainland China in turmoil.  The violin and tales finish at a Montreal auction house under the resonant control of the man with the gavel. It is difficult to maintain a consistency of storytelling quality through a film as ambitious as The Red Violin  and even though it veers toward bathetic romance novel in one segment, the overall quality of the writing is outstanding.

Samuel Jackson oversees work on the red violin. ©Universal

       Director and writer Francois Girard weaves The Red Violin back and forth in time, from the birth of the violin and back to the auction, repeatedly returning to the auction during each segment and then to Cremona to unmask more of the mystery and history of the violin. The structure provides pleasures and distractions. The complexity adds an overall chill to the storytelling, but it solidly links each story to one another. 
     The acting is quite good. I liked watching Samuel L. Jackson in a very different role.  Jackson, playing the expert called upon to value the violins for auction, always makes it look easy, but I thought he outdid himself by holding back in The Red Violin. It’s a Jackson I like very much. Jason Flemyng playing the flamboyant Fredric Pope is perhaps slightly too flamboyant in his performance for my taste. On the other hand, Greta Scacchi’s fire plays great music in the Pope segment. Sylvia Chang is fine as the politico with a violin in the back room and Carlo Cecchi as master violinmaker Niccolo Bussotti adds great realism to the film.  Co-writer Don McKellar has a nice role as a violin technician and Colm Feore is perfect as the Auctioneer.
     The Red Violin includes a brilliant score by modernist John Corigliano. Classical violin compositions are woven seamlessly into the texture of the film, and Corigliano’s chords add power and drama to the lovely film. Cinematography by Alain Dostie is lush, with marvelous lighting for each segment. This is a beautiful production. Girard, who co-wrote the script with actor Don McKellar, keeps extraordinary control over the sweeping material.
     There’s a striking variety of visual material in The Red Violin DVD. Each era represented in the omnibus structure has its own subtle color palette and little scheme. Appropriately, the most modern segment, featured around the elegant Montreal auction, has the brightest and slickest looking visuals. Sharpness is consistently on the money. I was especially fond on the range of color evident in so many ways. Look at the variety of facial tones. They are wonderfully executed. The wood tones have exquisite variety. You can feel the life of the violins through the visual range. Color is outstanding on The Red Violin. There is nothing more dramatic than marching Red Guard Maoists in the China segment. The wood tones of the various violins on display at the auction house are likewise a marvelous mélange of tone. 
     The sound is beautifully recorded on The Red Violin DVD. It’s presented in both Dolby Digital 5:1 and DTS. I believe this is a DVD first. Both soundtracks are outstanding. It is not possible to do an “on-the-fly” comparison of the two soundtracks, as the encoding on this DVD does not permit switching audio without returning to the main menu. I played several segments repeatedly in both DD and DTS. This is far from a controlled comparison. I am not certain of the differences in the encoding of the DD and DTS tracks. Theoretically, DTS is duplicated from the master tracks provided by the film source with no alterations. Does that differ from the DD encoding? I am not certain. I can tell you that the DTS recording played at a greater volume of four or five db. I checked this with a Radio Shack db meter to confirm my hearing. Radio Shack and I appeared in concert.  I tried raising the volume on the DD recording several times that I played it, but this only made the comparison even more remote, though it was only a several second process. Both recordings are beautiful. The DTS tracks seem to have slightly deeper bass extension. Even the highs sounded more extended. Overall there was a greater feeling of range and subtlety. The textures on the DTS cloth were more tactile, if you will. Given my simple and certainly less than extensive testing, I would choose to watch this movie accompanied by the DTS tracks. Let me emphasize that this opinion relates to this DVD only. Though, of the handful of DTS movies I have watched and listened to, my immediate impression is that DTS raises the stakes a bit. It’s difficult even doing a haphazard A-B comparison to determine which encoding sounds better.
    The various languages in The Red Violin are all natively recorded .  White removable English titles appear over the image in all segments except the English ones on this 1.85 anamorphic transfer. They are easy to read and do not distract from the visual presentation.      



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