This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 7th April 2013
This film was released in the US as A Late Quartet but not only is this a rather opaque title, it has been renamed for wider release, principally to prevent its being confused with the recent grey dollar movie Quartet (forgive the term, older viewers, but the film industry is now unashamedly making movies with your pocket in mind). Happily, although the name “Performance” risks evoking the iconic Mick Jagger movie (with which it bears no resemblance), this one is superior to both previous films with its exemplary casting, dialled-down acting and beautiful rendition of the most classic of classical music.
Those who haven’t been involved in one may be surprised to discover the intense, long-term relationship that grows within a string quartet, particularly one whose world-class success sees it go on for decades. When daily life revolves around rehearsing and performing, making committee decisions about when to tour and managing one another’s sensitivities about the role each plays in the foursome, emotions are bound to occasionally run high.
The four top-class actors who personify the intricacy of human nature are perfectly cast: Christopher Walken as the avuncular, aging cellist; Catherine Keener’s gentle viola player, married to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s ambitious second violin; and the arrogant virtuoso first violin played by Mark Ivanir (the only one whose face may be familiar but whose name will not). As ill-health threatens one of their clan, mutual concern about the future gives way to itchy feet and impulsive decisions. The strength of the writing is that even far-fetched situations are responded to with utter sincerity, lifting the story out of farce and into pathos.
Despite excellent support from a subtly starry cast (including the “Julia Child of Indian Cookery”, Madhur Jaffrey, and real-life opera singer Anne Sofie Von Otter), this is essentially a chamber piece, written and directed by relative newcomer Yaron Zilberman who is following up his award-winning first film, the documentary Watermarks. Zilberman exhibits a preternatural lightness of touch, taking a simple premise – the probable demise of this tightly-bound musical family on the eve of its 25th anniversary season – and subtly dissecting the passion, conflicts and heartache inherent in the quartet’s long history.
On top of the universally superb performances, the music is sublime. Inspired by and subsequently written around Beethoven’s String Quartet in C-sharp minor, the actors’ string and bow work looks faultless to the untrained eye (I’m confident even the trained viewer should be satisfied).
Providing laughter and tears, Performance is in no way as “hilarious” nor thankfully as saccharine as Quartet, but I draw the comparison only to warn those expecting a simple OAP comedy that this foursome delivers something considerably more substantial.