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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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis