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  Saddest Music in the World, The Play Something We Know
Year: 2003
Director: Guy Maddin
Stars: Mark McKinney, Isabella Rossellini, Maria de Medeiros, David Fox, Ross McMillan, Louis Negin, Darcy Fehr, Claude Dorge, Talia Pura
Genre: Musical, Drama, WeirdoBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 2 votes)
Review: The year is 1933 and North America is in the grip of the Depression. The place is Winnipeg, Canada, and musical entrepreneur Chester Kent (Mark McKinney), accompanied by his girlfriend Narcissa (Maria de Medeiros), goes to see a fortune teller to get a glimpse of his future, but when he is told there is unhappiness and misery around the corner for him he is sceptical. He is especially looking forward to the grand competition staged by the owner of the local brewery, Lady Port-Huntley (Isabella Rossellini) where various countries will take part in discovering which land has the saddest music; with Narcissa already a charming singer, Chester believes he will clean up and win the generous prize money easily...

This strange musical was based on a script by Kazuo Ishiguro and adapted by George Toles and the director Guy Maddin. It immediately looks like a Maddin film from the first, introductory scene with its grainy, fuzzy black and white photography recalling another age - even the nineteen thirties appear too modern compared with this, which resembles a film from the early silent era, only with anachronistic sound. Entirely shot on a stage, the production has a claustrophobic ambience to accompany its twisted, fairy tale logic, and the performances have an appropriately mannered air, as if stifled by the relentless articiality. It's not a conventional film, but is an absorbing one in its way.

The abundant weirdness makes itself plain from the outset. Lady Port-Huntley has lost both of her legs, and transports herself around on a small trolley. We find out why she's an amuptee soon enough: she used to be Chester's lover, but the man who was really in love with her was Chester's father Fyodor (David Fox), a veteran of the First World War and doctor who caused his son's car to crash with him and Lady Port-Huntley in it. Her leg was pinned under the car, but to get her free Fyodor cut off the wrong limb in his drunkeness, and it's one of the many ironies in the film that if it hadn't been for alcohol the beer magnate would have not have been in the state she is when the story starts.

There is one other main character to be introduced, and he, like Chester and Fyodor, is entering the competition. Chester is representing the United States of America, Fyodor Canada, and Chester's brother Roderick (Ross McMillan) returns home to represent Serbia. While Chester's presentation is something of a sham from a shallow man, Roderick has really suffered as his wife left him after their young son died, and he keeps the boy's heart preserved in his own tears in a jar. Roderick is understandably oversensitive, can't bear to be touched, and plays his cello from the the depths of his despair, which deepen further when he recognises Narcissa.

Most of The Saddest Music in the World is filmed in sombre black and white, but occasional colour sequences arrive to brighten the visuals. However, despite the subject manner, the tone is surprisingly jolly, giving rise to another of those ironies in that the contest has been arranged to cynically exploit people's misery at a difficult time, just as the alcohol is being sold to take the drinkers' minds off their plight (Prohibition will soon be lifted in the U.S.A.). So while the depressing aspect is felt by some characters, the contest is held in front of a cheering crowd, and the winner of each round riotously is dropped into a vat of beer - and much of the music isn't exactly tear-jerking, either. It's this arch quality that distances you from the emotions, making for an attractive but hollow experience. Chester finally living out his misery seems contrived. Music by Christopher Dedrick.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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