13 April 2013

Yaron Zilberman’s ‘A Late Quartet’

Back in January I described Dustin Hoffman’s film Quartet, set in a retirement home in the English countryside in summer, as British cinema geriatrica. Although A Late Quartet is similar in name and again is about a musical quartet, the resemblance stops there. The members of Zilberman’s Fugue Quartet are at their professional peak and his film charts their way through interlocking personal and professional crises. A Late Quartet is set in the sort of Manhattan winter which Bellows would have recognised and in the sort of affluent and cultured milieu (a glimpse of Holbein’s Thomas More at one point) which is familiar from Woody Allen’s more serious pieces. I lack the musical knowledge to fully appreciate the metaphorical significance of Beethoven’s Opus 131 String Quartet No. 14 in C sharp minor and I’m too ignorant to be distracted by the actors having to mimic playing. Anyone interested in such issues should read elsewhere, eg Clarrissa Tan’s review in the Spectator and the comment on it by “Salieri”. But I can offer comment on the acting which I thought was uniformly good, in particular it was a pleasure to see Philip Seymour Hoffman again after 2011’s Ides of March.

However, someone whose opinions I usually respect hated Zilberman’s film. Norman Geras’s post about it on Normblog begins “Spoiler herein, if this thing is capable of actually being spoiled.” so I have been selective:
One of the worst experiences I've had in the cinema in recent times was going to see A Late Quartet on Saturday. It was excruciatingly awful: clichéd, plot-predictable, musically refined sensibilities for those who really know how to feel, and laid on like honey and peanut butter; with one scene in which the movie basically collapses, as mother visits daughter, … . Readers, I cringe to remember it.
And he prays in aid the review in the New Statesman by Ryan Gilbey:
A Late Quartet is a terrible film—it’s like an idiots’ Amour. It does, though, feature an outstanding performance by Christopher Walken. The movie itself is all calculation. It’s achingly, parodically middlebrow in everything from its storyline (the 25th anniversary tour of a string quartet is jeopardised by the illness of its founder, and the tensions between the remaining three members) to the bias of the script, which fondly imagines that passionate young women go helplessly cock-a-hoop for embittered, middle-aged jobbing musicians with an entire airport carousel’s worth of emotional baggage.
but Geras doesn’t even like
… Christopher Walken's performance, which [Gilbey] calls outstanding. Don't believe it. Walken fits right in, with his oh-so-delicate and suffering sensitivity conveyed by a sad eye and a near-sneer.
So let me comment on these criticisms and reveal some of my own views in the process, without, I hope, exposing too much of the plot in the process. For a start, I think any comparison with Amour is ill-founded – the latter is about a long-married couple facing the harsh vicissitudes of old age. Three of the Fugue Quartet are in their professional prime and their problems are both more complicated and less tragic than that of Georges and Anne. I thought Walken was good in his part, but all the main players were convincing - Walken can hardly be blamed for offering a slightly unsettling intimation of Ben Bradshaw MP in years to come. If the New Statesman regards this film as “middlebrow”, I have to wonder where they find something highbrow at the cinema these days. Would they have had any time for Zilberman’s only previous film direction (according to IMDb), a documentary, Watermarks, about the Hakoah Jewish women’s swimming team in pre-War Vienna? Possibly not sufficiently recherché for the Staggers.

Gilbey’s reference to “embittered, middle-aged jobbing musicians” eludes me. The Fugue Quartet – and whether this is realistic I have no idea – are clearly being portrayed as performers of high international standing with incomes and standards of living to match. The quartet’s first violin player, who is the bachelor object of said young woman’s passion, not only owns a BMW but what looked to me like a Gerhard Richter candle painting. Another player was contemplating paying over US $20,000 for a violin. As for young women and middle-aged men, I can well remember from my university days a woman student being involved with a rather older academic – and that was in Britain in the 1960s, not New York now. By the way, if any player in the quartet was embittered, it was the second violin, not the first.

Anyone who has had to earn their living in a team, however prosaic its purpose, will recognise the film’s portrayal of the conflicts that can arise between professional and personal interests. So as far as cinema dramas go, and so far as I can understand the lives of high-flying classical musicians in Manhattan, it seemed plausible enough, and as for the unavoidable preciousness given the subject – well not every film can be about the CIA. Zilberman wrote, part-screenplayed and directed A Late Quartet. I’m hoping he will direct again before long, in the meantime Watermarks is available only on a Region 1 DVD unfortunately.


Anyone who has read this far might find this report on BBC News, Hidden hierarchy in string quartets revealed, interesting!

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