Franç ois Girard’s film owes its success to the past masters of
music: instrument builders and composers. With co-writer Don McKellar and
an able cast, he has spun a yarn that crosses all manner of boundaries: geographic, artistic, and taste.
The fascinating life of a 1681 “Bussotti” fiddle is told
using flashback and fortune telling, whose five cards, like the lines of a
staff, provide the framework for the 300+-year-old tale.
But it’s John Corigliano’s haunting score and
violinist Joshua Bell’s superb artistry that steal the show. Right from the
opening out-of-focus shot of the maker’s workshop, the rich soundscape of
dissonant strings ebbing their way to unisons and major tonalities fits the
action brilliantly. Special mention must be made of the painstaking efforts
taken by all concerned—particularly Alain Dostie’s camera and Gaétan Huot’s deft
editing—to give the non-violinists in the audience a thoroughly convincing
impression that the actors were actually playing the notes seen and heard. Bravo!
The music/drama held up well until the Oxford sequence
where Jason Flemyng’s portrayal of the hedonistic virtuoso Frederick Pope (so
ironically named given the later desire of the Monks from Cremona to buy back
the “devil own” instrument) rings false. Having sex with the alluring Greta Scacchi while playing his latest inspiration (“It’s a theme I want to work out”) pushed the credibility envelope a little too far and provided unintentional humour: bow job extraordinaire.
The entire Shanghai episode (brought about by a convenient
suicide and stereo-typical, Asian-as-servant conceit) added new degrees of depth
to the “red” metaphor but moved at an Adagio tempo. Not surprisingly,
the absence of any substantive musical contributions from the score or story
in these scenes added to the lethargy.
Finally, in Montréal, the plot and the music roared ahead as
appraiser Charles Morritz (Samuel L. Jackson) haughtily went about his task of
evaluating an entire shipment of fine instruments—including the title piece—for
Canadian Customs and then gentleman-auctioneer, Colm Feore’s House of Duval.
Despite being a Canadian production (Alliance Atlantis, Rhombus Media), it’s sad
to see the need for an American expert scripted when, in fact, there are many
knowledgeable Canadians who would have been more than up for the assignment.
Nonetheless, Jackson provides the film’s best moments; wordlessly, he realizes the true identity of the violin while listening to an aging virtuoso (whose demeanour reminded me of the late Isaac Stern)
effortlessly coax melodic gold out of perfect convergence of science and art. Only F. Murray Abraham as Salieri in Amadeus could top that.
The film winds down with the varnish mystery solved even as another young life is about to be given the chance to play the purloined instrument in the sequel. JWR