PERFORMANCE/ A LATE QUARTET. Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, and Christopher Walken. Directed by Yaron Zilberman. 105 minutes. Rated M (sex scenes and coarse language).
Recently, there have been several films for older audiences, quality films like Amour, Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and, with themes of music, Quartet and A Song for Marion. Three have been British, one American. Performance is the American film, originally called A Late Quartet, but changed because of the release of the British film, Quartet
The setting is New York City. Four members of the Fugue string quartet have being played together for 25 years. The leader of the quartet, Peter (Christopher Walken), is diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. (Some interesting scenes with interview and exercise with his doctor as well as explanations of how to deal and to cope with Parkinson’s.) Peter’s wife has died a year earlier.
He takes the news with great dignity, continuing his classes, a key scene being a lesson where he explains to his young students how he had met Pablo Cassals when young and, nervously, played for him, ashamed that it was his worst performance. He tells the group that he was praised by Cassals for his playing, and thought him hypocritical, just being nice to him. He goes on to say that he met Cassals later in his life and asked the master whether he remembered his performances for him. Cassals mentioned how he noticed variations of fingering and holding his bow from the usual playing and complemented him on his originality. That was what he had seen and praised. It is a moving story, nicely told.
In fact, Walken gives one of his most sympathetic performances, playing his role straight, a good and decent man, with a great love of music who has devoted himself for many decades to performance, especially in tribute to Beethoven’s opus 131, the Fugue - and movements are played throughout the film, explanations given as to the nature of the composition, and the reason for its being played straight through, very difficult for the players as well as their instruments.
The other members of the main cast are exemplary in their performances. We have come to expect a great deal from Philip Seymour Hoffman, showing great versatility in many different roles. Here he plays second violin and has come to a crisis, wishing to alternate with the first violin, played by Ukrainian-born actor, Mark Ivanir. Robert ( Hoffman), is married to the other violinist in the quartet, Juliet, and they have a daughter, Alexandra, who also plays the violin, takes lessons from Peter as well as from Mark.
Part of the drama in the film is Alexandra’s resentment towards her mother for being absent as she grew up, and having to travel around the world. She is closer to her father. Alexandra resents the perfectionism demanded by Daniel (Ivanir), in his lessons. However, he breaks through his normal reserve and begins an affair with the responsive Alexandra. This, of course, creates a crisis for her parents, with strong scenes of interaction with both.
But playing Robert gives Philip Seymour Hoffman a great opportunity to show a seemingly submissive of man, finally breaking out, wanting to play first violin and, in a moment of exasperation, betraying his wife who cannot understand what he has done and rejects him. In
very dramatic and moving scenes he tries to explain what has motivated him, trying to assert himself.
Beethoven’s music is really the background for the film rather than a subject in itself though it is given quite some treatment. The thrust of the film is the drama between the different members of the quartet as well as a portrait of a man who accepts oncoming Parkinson’s disease, trying to play for as long as he can, then withdrawing in great dignity. Real-life cello player, Nina Lee plays herself, coming as the new cello player in the quartet.
While three of the characters are around the age of 50, Walken’s character is 70. Which means that there is a great appeal in the drama and the music for middle aged and older audiences.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out March 14, 2013.