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.

KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism