A journey into a rarefied world of elusive tones evoked by horsehair on catgut, of investors lured to spend millions on unique instruments. The deadly sins of lust, jealousy and greed jostle with the purity of philanthropy and sonic perfection. A duel of tension and harmony of the Australian String Quartet of youthful virtuosi expanding their skills on a clutch of rare Guadagninis. An exploration of the mystery and the lost, delicate art of constructing these robust masterpieces - a complex history of enduring instruments and their temporary custodians.
Review by Louise Keller:
There is no shortage of passion in Scott Hicks' film about violins, making music and artistic temperaments, but there are too many distractions. It's a bit like a glorious melody that has been hijacked by too many notes scampering hyperactively across the stave. The dramatic break up of the talented Australian String Quartet is the core of Hicks' film along with the fascinating story about the rare, valuable musical instruments they are entrusted to play. If only Hicks had concentrated on these elements and included more music instead of so much talk and the unexpected diversion about a commercially focused New York Chamber Orchestra whose music is couched by hedge funds, Stradivaris, diamonds and high-end fashion. The Carpenter family, who are behind the Salome Orchestra is a story in itself. Obscene or amazing? Their story is extraordinary and I wanted to hear more, but it feels at though it does not belong here.
Three movements and a coda provide the film's structure; the pace is allegro. The editing is so fast that it takes great concentration to keep abreast of all the information we are given. Two talented new members of the ASQ; a wedding several weeks later. A match made in heaven or one that falls apart? The focus then shifts from the relationships within the quartet to the instruments they play. Much screen time is given to the involvement of philanthropist Ulrike Klein (the Jurlique cosmetics founder), who becomes the quartet's fairy godmother, as they acquire the use of 18th century Guadagnini violins with the mellow tone and hefty price tag. This section is another example of muddled information; Klein's childhood and relationship to her father may be interesting, but is not relevant here. The beautifully crafted instruments are of more interest. 'Custodians of masterpieces' is how the ASQ's playing of these exquisite musical instruments is described.
One of the best parts of the film involves a close up look at how a cello is created. We join Roberto the violin maker in Cremona, and follow him through his meticulous process of copying an original Guadagnini. He selects special resonant wood in the Dolomites, goes to a Milan sawmill before lovingly shaping the cello - complete with functionality and aesthetics. It's a shame that this intricate process is broken up and only shown spasmodically during the course of the film. The scene when we hear the bow finding its mellow notes for the very first time on the newly created cello is a wonderful moment.
But the main game is the story of the ASQ: their formation and shock break up 'due to irreconcilable differences'. Four talented musicians whose beautiful music is one voice comprising four. First violinist Kristian Winther and his wife Iona Tache leave the quartet in the middle of a tour. Violinist Stephen King and cellist Sharon Draper remain. King is a family man. Winther is l'enfant terrible; a formidable talent. Watching him play is utterly inspiring. It is as though he becomes part of the music. I would have loved to see and hear more. More music instead of so much talk. Yes, there are snippets of Dvorak, Brahms, Haydn and others, but never enough to actually get swept away by the music. After all, the whole point is the music - listening to these gifted musicians who bring the dots on the stave to life with the help of their exquisite instruments.
New York: The Carpenters - the Salome Orchestra
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HIGHLY STRUNG (M)
PRODUCER: Kerry Heysen
DIRECTOR: Scott Hicks
SCRIPT: Scott Hicks
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Scott Hicks
EDITOR: Sean Lahiff, Scott Gray
MUSIC: Music Supervisor: John Bissell
RUNNING TIME: 103 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Sharmill Films
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: May 19, 2016