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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

0800 7318496