Music to my eyes

The sweet sound of Christopher Walken in the otherwise terrible "A Late Quartet"

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.

Viewers of a discerning disposition will have to brace themselves for soulless shot compositions, and the indiscriminate ladling-on of music to encourage us in our tears (not that even a film this bad can diminish Beethoven’s Opus 131 String Quartet in C-sharp minor, which the quartet is preparing to play, and which the director Yaron Zilberman claims, in a direct bid to land top-spot in Pseuds’ Corner, has informed the very structure of his film). But it will be worth all that, just about, to clap eyes on Walken.

This actor, revered for his baked-in eccentricity, x-ray eyes and those wayward stresses which never fall on the same word in the same way twice, is 77 years old now, and has been doing some of his best work recently. He was the calm emotional anchor of Martin McDonagh’s restless and unsatisfying comic thriller Seven Psychopaths, and brought gravitas to Todd Solondz’s typically toxic comedy Dark Horse. In A Late Quartet, he plays Peter Mitchell, a cellist diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. The opportunities to milk such a part for maximum pathos are clear, but instead Walken remains stoical, solid and true: he underplays, hangs back, conveys with great lightness a sense of fear and vulnerability which could have capsized this otherwise inconsequential picture. Of course, this must be what great actors do: they look at the text as a whole and modulate their performance accordingly. Walken going maniacally at full pelt (see King of New York) or giving it the full, twinkly-eyed Jack Lemmon routine (as he did in Catch Me If You Can—though it fitted the tenor of that movie) would have shoved the rest of the cast (which includes Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener) off the screen.

Sometimes an actor becomes adored for his or her craziness, rather than to the honesty behind it. James Franco is a good example, and you need look no further than his performance as a swaggering, snarling white rapper/drug dealer/gangster in the current Spring Breakers, a film which presses the buttons of its hipster viewers as effectively and cynically as A Late Quartet does for its own swankier target crowd.

Walken remarked in a recent interview: “Quite often, I’ll be sent a script for a movie. And I find that I like it, so I say I'll do it. But then they rewrite it for me. They make it quirky… I call it Walkenising.” The temptation, and it is not one to which Walken himself has always been immune, is to ramp up this quality. But what has saved him, I think, is his emotional grounding: it is rare not to feel the solidity of his work beneath the wackiness. Even nutso riffs like his small comic turns in Mousehunt or Click or his measured monologue in Pulp Fiction have an inner life: those characters live on beyond their screen time.

Walken has become celebrated in recent years for his more demonstrative, eye-catching work so it’s important to remember that such battiness represents only a tiny proportion of his range. His performance in A Late Quartet harks back to his haunted, Oscar-winning turn in The Deer Hunter, or to his studied, quiet work in The Dogs of War and The Dead Zone. A composure, an inner stateliness, has been with him all along: it just didn’t always fit his spiky, kabuki-like face. Now, as his years are advancing, he has grown into himself. He has started making sense.

A Late Quartet is on release.

Christopher Walken in A Late Quartet. Image: RKO Pictures.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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What we can learn from Harry Potter’s “mad women”

We revist the “mad” women of Harry Potter, both good, bad and somewhere in between.

Madness is a fluid thing. To be “crazy” has no fixed meaning, it changes to fit the definition required – whether that’s a quick fix to deflect blame for the powerful (think racism, terrorism or fascism damagingly dismissed as “mental illness”) or a cunning way to dismiss the powerless: She’s not telling the truth! She’s crazy! Madness may be utterly meaningless, but it has infinite power.

In the often unreal space of mental illness, the fantasy world of books, movies and television can intertwine with one’s lived experience. I hated reading until Harry Potter came to me as a traumatised ten-year-old. In between bouts of psychosis and extreme suicidal ideation I would read, and read, and read. They were big books too, so thick, no picture – but it was worth it. A whole world just for me! Now isn’t that magical?

As we approach the twentieth anniversary of this wonderful, wizarding world, I find myself returning to the “mad” women of Harry Potter, both good, bad and somewhere in between. Bellatrix Lestrange, Moaning Myrtle, Luna Lovegood, Professor Trelawney... Who are these characters beyond their exaggerated mannerisms and super cute style? What are they telling us about the cultural codes of madness and the construct of the “mad woman”?

Because despite being more distressed when I was sorted into Slytherin than when I was presented with a personality disorder, pop culture and medical realities cross over in interesting and unexpected ways. These culturally agreed upon outfits of “madness” are retold and remade over and over. Who can wear the costume of madness, and in what way, in the popular imagination?

Luna Lovegood

First, let’s go for one of for one of the “good guys”. “Looney Luna”, the dazed Hogwarts student as pale as a full moon, is portrayed in the films with a quietly mesmerising performance from Evanna Lynch. Bullied for her “horrid” dress sense and marked out for her “distinct dottiness”, Luna was one of my teen idols. Young, brilliant, equally skilled at making novelty hats, riding thestrals and saving the wizarding world, Luna is up there with the best of them!

An heiress to madness, as the child of Xenophilius Lovegood, notorious for his “lunatic rag”, The Quibbler (known for its coverage of elusive magical creatures and defiantly radical politics), Luna, in her ability to embrace the impossible, is often characterised as an ‘anti-Hermione’, she is more than a mere shadow of another girl.

After all, in inhabiting such a distinct world of her own creation, shaped both by the grief of losing her mother and her own personal vision, it could be easy to dismiss her as a mere manic pixie dream girl, especially when considering her ability to recognise and support Harry’s struggles when others could not, but Luna’s character is more robust than these misogynistic tropes. Not only does she save Harry’s reputation with an interview in the much-maligned Quibbler (another reminder not to judge the ‘loony’ on first glance), she serves as a dedicated member of Dumbledore’s Army, acting as an essential force in The Battle of the Department of Mysteries, The Battle of The Astronomy Tower and of course, the final Battle For Hogwarts. Yes, her eccentricities are dismissed as ‘loony’, but they belong to a heroic character in possession of creativity, wit, intellect – and, of course, unique style. (A necklace made of Butterbeer corks, anyone?)

Pale, pop cultural misfits are funny things. Winona Ryder, Audrey Tatou in Amelie, Zooey Deschanel, Kate Bush… sometimes outsiders are more insiders than you’d realise. Nonetheless, I will fangirl for Luna forever.

Professor Sybill Trelawney

Perhaps seen as another antagonist to Hermione’s bookish rationality, and an adult mirror for Luna’s own dream logic, Professor Sybill Trelawney is a shining star in a long line of magical “mad women”. Can’t you just imagine her and the Log Lady from Twin Peaks bonding over a pint of Pumpkin Juice? The links between madness and the mystic run deep, it is no coincidence that Sybill’s Grandmother takes the name of Cassandra. Who would believe a mad woman? But who but a mad woman can see the truth in a chaotic world? (Luna, too, is characterised as keen observer, after all.) The pop cultural mystic provokes so many questions in regards to the mythology of madness (an often unhelpful fetish for those of us who are actually struggling with our mental health) and broader questions of believing women when we are constantly dismissed as irrational, ridiculous or unreliable.

Though her exaggerated costume and “woolly” predictions could reduce her to a mere comic support act, Sybill has far more nuance than the (seemingly) ridiculous individual we are presented with in the start of the third book. Throughout the series, her character deepens and develops: we see a heartbreakingly vulnerable side to her in the fifth book, and though her gift for The Inner Eye may have been dismissed early on, her predictions eventually become essential in defeating Voldemort. Sybill even plays a fearless role in The Battle of Hogwarts, knocking out Death Eaters with her crystal balls. One of Harry Potter’s many lessons is not to dismiss unconventional women like Sybill too quickly. As a result, Sybill stands out as a beautiful branch on the tree of mystic weirdos. Who knows what miraculous things we might discover if we take the time to listen to her?

Moaning Myrtle

Existing as an exaggeration of teen girl melancholy, Moaning Myrtle is trapped in the school that bullied and eventually killed her. She’s pictured as forever crying in the girls’ bathroom on the first floor, unwanted and unmissed, with even her attempt at high school revenge washed out. There’s been so many perceptive conversations on the post-Kraus female gaze: wouldn’t it be interesting to locate Myrtle within them? She’s depicted as crushing on any boy that comes her way (be it Harry, Cedric or Malfoy), though the only thing she has to offer them is a toilet. Even her acne is “morose”.

This is a world where Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen” plays on loop for eternity, effortlessly brought to (after)life by the brilliant Shirley Henderson, Queen of crying in public bathrooms. I’ll leave with my favourite quote that could one up even the most contentious Lana Del Rey soundbite:

Myrtle: “I wasn’t paying attention. Peeves upset me so much I came in here and tried to kill myself. Then, of course, I remembered that I’m — that I’m —”

Ron: “Already dead.”

Bellatrix LeStrange

And then we have Bellatrix: crazy in love with the Dark Lord himself, escaped inmate from a madness inducing institution, and a total Amy Winehouse prototype in her aesthetic of long black hair, low voice and heavily-lidded eyes.

It’s striking how frequently certain traits reoccur in pop culture when we envision the criminally insane, especially when it comes to women. Much like Harley Quinn of the Batman universe or Drusilla in Buffy, Bellatrix talks in the bizarre baby talk so popular with the fantasy mad woman. We are presented with a woman infantilised. This is also at play in her relationship with Voldemort: she’s totally dependent and utterly out of control.

If we can read Luna and Sybill as playful antagonists to such rational figures as Professor McGonagall and Hermione, Bellatrix serves as an active threat against Molly Weasley, the only true maternal figure Harry really has in the series. Sirius’ face may be the one burnt off the House of Black’s family tree, but it is Bellatrix who is the real destroyer of families: from the torture of Neville Longbottom’s parents, to the murder of her cousin (and Harry’s Godfather) Sirius Black and her own niece, Nymphadora Tonks. She even kills Dobby! In setting Bellatrix up as a total monster, it’s unsurprising that she became the only character to earn an all caps curse word in this child-friendly book. Because female evil has a particular kind of power, it provokes disgust in ways that others do not. Consider Umbridge, another reigning villainess with her hot pink get-ups and kitsch cat study, a sort of Nurse Ratched of Hogwarts. To use the building blocks of femininity to make a monster harbours true horror, so it is the female villains, both mad and bad, that stand out most sharply when it comes to Harry’s nemeses.

In the exaggerated fantasy world of Harry Potter this cast of mad women may seem like simplistic set characters of quirky creatives, cry-babies, unrealizable narrators and outright she-Devils. However, if we look closer at these ghostly voyeurs, escaped prisoners and outright eccentrics we can position these characters within a longer cultural history of ‘insane’ and outrageous women. Madness is often presented as a sort of magic and it is these mad women, existing in the already improbable space of witches and wizards, that push even further against our received ideas of rationality, respectability, even human goodness. Pottermore may have sorted me into Slytherin, but it is the Hogwarts House of Mad Women whose robes I choose to wear.

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

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