‘Highly Strung’: Film Review

Scott Hicks returns with an ode to the past and present of string instruments.

In Highly Strung, the new documentary from Australian filmmaker Scott Hicks, intrigue within an Australian string quartet is the gateway to universal questions: about the place of classical music in contemporary life, the tension between money and music, and between the time-honored and cutting-edge. Premiering at the Adelaide Film Festival, this wide-ranging documentary with more than a few different sub-plots feels like a TV four-parter uncomfortably mashed together into a feature.

After breaking out with Shine, his 1996 biopic of pianist David Helfgott that also made a Stateside star of Geoffrey Rush, Hicks crossed the Pacific to make worthy adaptations such as Snow Falling on Cedars and Hearts in Atlantis, and, more recently, romances such as No Reservations and The Lucky One. Next year he joins the ranks of big-screen YA pushers with Fallen, based on the best-selling books by Lauren Kate, whose central love triangle sounds ominously like Twilight with angels instead of vampires.

The Bottom Line

Engaging and ragged in equal parts.

Hicks’ interest in music dates from his early work with INXS, and the subject seems to bring out the best in him — from Shine to the filmmaker’s 2007 documentary Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts. Where that film focused on one man’s dedication to his work, even at the expense of his personal life, Highly Strung crams in characters that are meant to be playing from the same sheet but whose vision — of their music and of themselves — diverges wildly. 

The film starts, fitfully, by introducing the new members of the Adelaide-based Australian String Quartet, who are gifted four instruments, worth millions each, made by Guadagnini — considered one of the great 18th century violin-makers alongside the likes of Stradivarius. The behest comes from Ulrike Klein, a German immigrant to South Australia who built a cosmetics empire, Jurlique, and now funnels her fortune into the arts. For a comprehensive precis of the state of the art, Hicks also travels to Cremona, Italy, where we see Roberto Cavagnoli, a professional luthier, fashion a cello from scratch over four months. Highly Strung then jumps, with a dizzying lack of connective tissue, to the Plaza Hotel on Fifth Avenue, where the celebrated Carpenter family occupies a penthouse.

Virtuoso siblings who play and sell violins made by the maestros, the Carpenters are unafraid to broadcast their taste for expensive clothes, fine jewelry and gold watches. To them, classical music is about glamour and big, big business. Operating his own camera as he did on Glass, Hicks joins the Carpenters on a visit to the world’s most successful hedge fund. The CEO scratches the catgut himself, and, like everybody else, fetishizes the 18th century instruments made by the masters.

Whether their superiority over modern craftsmanship is a myth is one of the most fascinating questions Highly Strung throws up; a test in which musicians play 18th century violins, then contemporary ones, while blindfolded, suggests that it’s the new instruments that in fact produce the preferred sound.

Back at the ASQ, a crisis is afoot. The two young violinists in the quartet, Kristian Winther and Ioana Tache, a couple since the group’s formation, have asked the board to dissolve the quartet and allow them to form a new one. Informative but diffuse up until this point, the film finds some focus here. Hicks’ highly personal approach, slinging questions from behind his own camera, is perfect for interrogating each of the four as they reluctantly discuss the group’s dissolution, though he never quite pierces the veil of diplomacy hanging over the whole affair. As Winther and Tache depart, hung by their own petard, Hicks pulls back to take in the reaction of Klein, their godmotherly benefactor, and her plans to build a new venue for classical music atop a hill among South Australia’s vineyards.

Hicks’ approach throughout Highly Strung, in short, is to throw paint at the wall, and only some of it sticks. The Carpenters are entertainingly crass, but their world — at one point they float the idea of embellishing Stradivarius violins with encrusted diamonds, then on-selling them — seems more amusing than vital to the story.

What Hicks thinks that story is remains a touch unclear. At one point the quartet plays with Australian pianist Anna Goldsworthy, who has written recently about a gloomy future for classical music. Highly Strung might be about an art form’s ability to connect to a collective past, but it’s also about the future. It concludes at the site of Klein’s new Ngeringa Cultural Centre, with cellist Sharon Draper playing outdoors as the sun goes down. But the film also supplies a rather tart coda informing us that Winther and Tache are now manning a hotdog stand. The future might be bright, but only for some — and not the young.

Production Company: Fiddlestick Film, Kino Film Group

Director: Scott Hicks

Producer: Kerry Heysen

Executive Producers: Timothy White, Anna Vincent

Sales: The Film Sales Company

No rating, 99 minutes