Film review of Performance

This film review of “Performance” originally appeared in the Australian Jewisn News on 14 March 2013.  Note that the film was originally entitled “Late Quartet” in its November 2012 North American release.  (Persumably its name has been changed so as not to be confused with the Dustin Hoffman-directed British film “Quartet”.)

Directed by Yaron Zilberman

Written by Yaron Zilberman and Seth Grossman

Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Christopher Walken and Mark Ivanir

There is something truly delightful when a director has the courage to make a film like “Performance”, which is totally devoted to classical music.  We have seen biopics of famous composers – Mozart, Beethoven, Strauss, Chopin, Handel, Bach and Tchaikovsky all come to mind – but “Performance”  is the first one I can recall featuring a fictional string quartet.

Well, not quite fictional.  Writer/director Yaron Zilberman (who previously directed the documentary “Waterworks”, about Austrian Jewish swimmers during the Nazi period) has based his film on the personal histories of three real-life quartets.  Set in modern-day New York City, “The Fugue” quartet is facing a major predicament after 25 years of world-wide success.  The founder and spiritual leader, cellist Peter Mitchell (played by Christopher Walken, in an uncharacteristically non-malevolent role) has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, confirming the virtual end of his career.  What to do?  Replace him or go their separate ways?

Long-simmering tensions and resentments arise between the other three members – cellist Juliette Gelbart (Catherine Keener), her husband and second violinist Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman), first violinist Daniel Lerner (Mark Ivanir).  When Robert states that he would like to share the first violin role with Daniel, he precipitates a crisis that will eventually encompass all members as well as the Gelbarts’ daughter.

“Performance” is an intimate, character-driven drama which evinces much respect and reverence for classical music and musical instruments.  How many films show a full-screen shot of a musical score?  This one does, twice.  I do not know musical string technique well enough to determine if the actors are totally convincing in their playing, but they sure looked good to me:  reportedly each one had no less than two musical coaches.  (Actual music for the film is provided by the Princeton, New Jersey-based Brentano String Quartet, and that quartet’s cellist, Nina Lee, has a cameo role near the end, playing herself.)

Without “name” actors, a film like this would not likely receive a theatrical release, but there is real star power on screen here, with Walken and Hoffman in particular turning in emotionally nuanced roles.  The real find, however, is Russian-born former Israeli Mark Ivanir.  While he is the least known, in some ways he is the most convincing:  unlike Keener, Walken and Hoffman with their well-recognised screen personas, I could actually believe that Ivanir was a musician.  (The ever-enjoyable Wallace Shawn also appears as Gideon Rose, the head of another quartet.)

The film is framed around the quartet’s plans to play Beethoven’s String Quartet Number 14 in C-Sharp minor, also known as “Opus 131” (how it is referred to in this film).  Opus 131 consists of seven movements played without a break (instead of the usual four), and is reportedly very challenging even for the most experienced musicians.

The word “Jew” is never spoken in “Performance”, and many non-Jews will not realise how totally, completely and thoroughly Jewish this film is:  every major character except one (Walken) is Jewish, as are the film’s director, writers and producers.  New York City also features almost as a character in its own right (hints of Woody Allen’s “Manhattan”), all shot in a snowy but bright winter.  All of the characters had attended or taught at the Julliard School of Music, New York City’s famous music conservatory.   Scenes take place in the Upper West and Upper East Sides of Manhattan, including iconic locations like the Central Park Reservoir, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Frick Collection.  Action also takes place in four different flats, each one of them carefully reflecting its inhabitants’ personalities and tastes.

In our special effects-driven digital age, “Performance” may very well get lost in the noise, but that would be a shame.  Set against the background of professional musicians, it uses the opportunity to explore some of life’s bigger themes:  ageing, infirmity, mentoring, missed chances and the sacrifices that we may make for our art.

Performance - Ivanir and Keener

Photo above: Mark Ivanir and Catherine Keener in “Performance” (also known as “Late Quartet”)

***

Additional note: In last weekend’s Sydney Morning Herald (9-10 March 2013), critic Sandra Hall’s review included some worthwhile insights.  She called Wallace Shawn “a human signpost” whose “mere presence spells New York” (cute).  She also captured the essence of the “Performance” in its understatement:  Walken’s character shows uncommon stillness, “dignified melancholy” and “rueful downplaying”.  This contrasts with Ivanir’s Daniel – who has never mastered that art of downplaying and Hoffman’s Peter – who “has never had to try”.

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