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aka - A Late Quartet
USA 2012
Directed by
Yaron Zilberman
105 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Sharon Hurst
3.5 stars

Performance (2012)

Synopsis: A renowned string quartet consisting of second violinist Robert (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), his wife and viola player, Jules (Catherine Keener), first violinist Daniel (Mark Ivanir), and the much older founder of the group, cellist and music teacher, Peter (Christopher Walken), is rehearsing for its 25th anniversary performance. But its viability comes under threat when Peter is diagnosed with Parkinson's and the relationships of the other three are torn apart by lust and ego.

I am not a keen fan of chamber music so it is remarkable that I loved this film as much as I did. The film is apparently inspired by, and even structured around a favourite string quartet of the director’s, Beethoven’s String Quartet No 14 in C# minor, known as Opus 131. Zilberman has explained that the piece is meant to be played without break and that over 40 minutes the instruments will inevitably go out of tune. Stopping, re-tuning and adapting are treated by the director as metaphors for long-term relationships and for me that’s where the whole film works so well - the relationship narrative is so strong that it didn’t matter that I didn’t understand the finer points of the music (which is surprisingly marvellous, by the way.)

Just as the trajectory of Opus 131 varies dramatically, so the narrative of the story takes us on a wild emotional ride, from sublime joy to deep troughs of despair. And thanks to the performances of four great lead actors this is, for me, a story with much credibility and resonance for real-life. Seymour Hoffman is one of our contemporary greats and he doesn’t disappoint as the self-absorbed musician desperate to play first violin, and even more desperate to save his 25-year marriage when the tough times set in. Keener is a perfect foil for him - gentle, deeply emotional and totally charismatic. Ivanir’s Daniel is a broody perfectionist and loner not given to letting his emotions out and certainly not amenable to being challenged.

The real surprise of this film is Walken, usually seen in bad guy roles or as a quirky oddball. Here he simply shines as an articulate, compassionate, grieving widower and group founder, dealing with illness and trying to be a father figure to his colleagues as their lives fall apart. At certain moments his performance and expression almost break your heart. You can feel all the highs and lows of this man’s life just from his face. Rounding out the cast is the beautiful Imogen Poots as Alexandra, the daughter of Robert and Jules and herself a promising violinist.  The mother/daughter chemistry of Alexandra and Jules is captured powerfully in the performances of the two women, with a couple of very confronting scenes sure to strike a chord with many mothers and daughters.

Aspects of the plot have the potential to veer towards melodrama but thanks to the restraint and top-notch acting talent of the leads, things never get out of control and indeed much of what takes place has a loud ring of truthfulness.  The incisive anecdotes that Peter tells his students, combined with reflections upon the whole issue of time passing, along with people and relationships aging, help deliver plenty of food for thought for the audience.

In America this movie was originally called “A Late Quartet”, a title which recalls the recent Quartet with its group of aging musicians doing not dissimilar battle with the past and each other. Certainly, if you appreciated that film, Performance makes for a worthy companion piece.




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