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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As the language of break-ups changes, are we regarding our ex-partners differently?

From “conscious uncoupling” to “LAT” couples, we are learning to retain friendly – even familial – post-romantic bonds with former lovers.

Is the conversation around break-ups changing?

When Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin announced their “conscious uncoupling” in March 2014, I was among the bemused detractors. Was it just a hippy-dippy euphemism, a nicer way of dressing up a plain old separation? Wasn’t a break-up bound to be easier if you had money and several houses?

Yet, almost two years on, it’s hard to deny that it seems to have worked well for them. “We’re still very much a family, even though we don’t have a romantic relationship. He’s like my brother,” she told Glamour magazine last week.

They’ve holidayed together and been photographed smiling and laughing like dear old friends. Perhaps surprisingly, it hasn’t prevented either from moving on to new romantic partners.

Even some of my (non-Hollywood) peer group are starting to come round to the idea. “I may be the only person in the world who likes the term,” posted one friend in a Facebook thread when I announced that I’d done such a volte-face that I was going to call my new solo show The Conscious Uncoupling.

It quickly turned out that she wasn’t the only person at all, as other friends added that they rather liked it too. Mind you, comedian Kate Smurthwaite commented that she’d only be likely to utter the words if she’d “accidentally swallowed poison and needed to regurgitate it”.

Now that we have an alternative phrase, albeit one that carries a divisive whiff of pretension, it does seem to be empowering us to behave differently, thinking more carefully about bringing greater compassion and communication to this life-changing painful process.

A male comedian friend described to me how he and his wife had, “agreed and admitted that this might all be over but we would still want to be friends – because at heart, we are.

He added: “No one teaches us that this can happen. If you split up, you must scream and shout and never talk to the other person again. Previously I’d have advised people not to flog a dead horse and just get out but recent events have changed my thinking.”

Yet perhaps this behaviour did already exist. In previous decades, lesbians typically went through lengthy, turbulent transitions to form lasting family-like connections with ex-partners. The community was so small and secret that you “simply had to get on”, according to Dr Jane Traies, who conducted a comprehensive survey of older gay women in the UK.

It wouldn’t be the first time that the gay community have been pioneers of trends that have caught on enough to generate their own new language. They were “living apart together” long before anyone talked about so-called “LAT” couples.

So for those of us embracing the concept and ideology of conscious uncoupling yet not wanting to associate too strongly with Paltrow, how about an alternative term?

I’ve tended to talk about “post-romantic” relationships, while the writer Anna Freeman says she has used the word “metamorphosis” to describe “a changing closeness”.

I’ve also mooted the idea of a “decompression year”, a consensually agreed 12-month untangling, as opposed to abrupt endings that usually come as a shock to one party and render ongoing friendship impossible.

New York psychotherapist Esther Perel has recently called for greater “relationship accountability” in the wake of alarming new trends, “ghosting” and “icing”, which respectively see partners disappearing without explanation or finding excuses to suspend a relationship and put it on hold.

If we extend a sense of accountability to online dating and short-term flings, maybe we should offer a suitable substitute match to everyone we reject.

It’s not a million miles from a popular comedy industry ethos whereby you offer a replacement of an equivalent quality and experience level whenever you drop out of a gig.

In an era where we can download relationship agreements committing to a certain number of date days per week, perhaps the most important clause should be the one about negotiating an ethical ending.

Whatever our feelings about conscious uncoupling, the idea of embracing the good things about your ex seems a pretty sound one. Therapist Katherine Woodward Thomas, who claims that she coined the phrase, has added something important to the conversation around breaking up – while celebrity endorsement of it has simply made more of us sit up and pay attention.

Rosie Wilby is a stand-up comedian, broadcaster and writer.