A string quartet, a play about Caesar and a film by Orson Welles

This weekend I watched 3 very different films, which were connected by two very dissimilar threads – Imogen Poots and Orson Welles.

First up was the 2012 drama A Late Quartet, directed by Israeli director Yaron Zilberman. I think the last time I watched a movie connected with classical music, it was The Red Violin in 1998 which followed the story of a famous violin over a period of 4 centuries. I got to listen to some wonderful pieces of music and the film won an Oscar for Best Score. A Late Quartet is also set in the world of classical music and it gives the director the opportunity to integrate the works of Beethoven, Haydn and Bach into the plot. However, unlike The Red Violin, the star attractions in this movie are the musicians rather than the instruments, specifically the 4 actors who portray the members of a world famous string quartet – Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener and Russian-born Israeli actor Mark Ivanir. In the film, the quartet have been playing together for 25 years  and are now shaken by the news that Walken’s character has early stages of Parkinson’s. Walken proposes a farewell concert after which he will hand over his cellist chair to a talented musician who has previously played with the group. While the rest of the group are struggling to come to terms with this development, Hoffman who plays 2nd violin starts talking about the possibility of alternating the 1st violin chair with perfectionist Mark Ivanir, much to Ivanir’s discomfort. Keener and Hoffman’s characters are married to each other and she asks Hoffman to give up this idea to avoid further disrupting the quartet; a request which hurts his feelings deeply, as he had expected her to back him up. Meanwhile, their talented college-age daughter, played by the vivacious British actress Imogen Poots, starts flirting with Ivanir during her music lessons with him. As you can see, there’s quite a lot going on here and before you start thinking that this sounds like the plot of a daytime soap, let me say that that the story lines unfold very naturally and the performances by these multiple Oscar nominees were nuanced and entirely believable. There are a few moments of melodrama, but ultimately, all the characters sacrifice their personal needs in order to keep the quartet together. The film culminates with Walken’s farewell performance, the quartet playing Beethoven’s Opus 131, which is considered to be one of his greatest pieces.

The performances of the key actors were outstanding of course, but I was really taken by the screen presence of Imogen Poots. I immediately searched for any other films she had recently acted in and I saw that she had a bit part in the critically acclaimed period drama Me and Orson Welles. This film created a great deal of buzz when it came out in 2008, but sadly was not picked up for distribution by any of the major studios. It eventually had a very limited theatrical run, but of course made a number of appearances at film festivals leading to an astounding 5 wins and 12 nominations for the actor – Christian McKay – who played Orson Welles. The film is directed by Richard Linklater, who along with Kevin Smith was considered to be the best American ‘indie’ director of the 1990s. The film also stars Zac Efron and Claire Danes and is based on the novel of the same name. It tells the fictionalized story of a young man (Efron) who is hired by Welles for a small part in his stage production of Julius Caeser for the Mercury Theater. The story takes place in the frantic few days before opening night and like Linklater’s ‘90’s works, is a coming-of-age film. The movie has a great ensemble cast, but ultimately it all boils down to McKay’s performance as the larger-than-life Orson Welles, who motivates those around him by the sheer force of his personality. The film gives an insight into the emotional upheavals involved in any creative process, not dissimilar to that of A Late Quartet. But the film that really came to mind as the climactic opening night scene unfurled was Shakespeare in Love. In both cases, the brilliant but tortured creator must beg, borrow, argue and cajole to ensure his play sees the light of day and in both cases, we as the audience get to experience vicariously, the unbounded joy of the entire crew at the end of a successful opening night.

In real life, Orson Welles followed up the success of his Mercury Theater plays with his directorial debut, Citizen Kane, which for many years has been considered the greatest film ever made. A year later, he released his 2nd film, The Magnificent Ambersons which also was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar (Welles ultimately never won an Oscar in competition, but was awarded an honorary statuette in 1971). In one of the scenes in Me and Orson Welles, Mr. Welles reads out a few lines from the novel The Magnificent Ambersons and soon after ad libs the very same lines during a radio performance…this was a book he was really in love with. So, I decided this would be the film I would watch as a logical conclusion to the weekend. The final cut of the film differed significantly from how Welles wanted it edited and sadly the unused raw footage was destroyed to make room in the studio vaults, so Welles never had the chance to do a director’s cut in subsequent years. Even so, the finished product is highly regarded by many film critics and features in my copy of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. It is a depressing story and Welles’ genius (along with that of cinematographer Stanley Cortez) is in shooting much of the film inside the darkened manor to magnify the slow decline of the Amberson family. As in the case of Citizen Kane, this is a film that can be studied by film historians for its technical brilliance, but I confess that this film did not connect with me emotionally (neither did Citizen Kane). The much awaited ‘comeuppance’ which the spoilt heir George Amberson Minafer is supposed to get at the end of the story wasn’t very satisfying either (if you want to see what my idea of a real comeuppance is, then check out the last scene of There Will be Blood). And so, Touch of Evil must remain my favorite Welles film (the opening scene alone is worth watching).

It was a somewhat disappointing end to my thematically linked trilogy, but I guess watching an Orson Welles movie can at least be considered educational in terms of film history and creativity. The other 2 films were very engaging and I wait to see Imogen Poots in Danny Boyle’s upcoming Filth (with James McAvoy) and certainly I hope that director Yaron Zilberman will come up with a suitable follow up to A Late Quartet. As for Richard Linklater, I am considering a viewing of his “Before” trilogy, with the 3rd film Before Midnight being released next month.

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