Set in contemporary Manhattan, a world-renowned string quartet struggle to stay together as they mark their 25th anniversary. When the elder leader of the quartet discovers the onset of Parkinson's Disease, it throws the future of the famed group into question. His attempt to find a replacement player and organise rehearsals for their upcoming concert bring up unresolved issues and grievances. In the face of illness, competing egos and insuppressible lust, can they pull together for one final great performance – of Beethoven's Fugue at Carnegie Hall?
Debutant director Yaron Zilberman has a natural flair for capturing the authenticity of a moment yet struggles to gel those affecting instances into a cohesive whole in Performance.
Wavers between profundity and cliché for most of its running time.
There can be no faulting the elegance of beautifully crafted scenes set amongst the homes and creative spaces of New York’s artistic community. Yet there is something just a little off-key in the story of four elite classical musicians and the personal interactions that fracture their preparation for the first show of the season. Superb acting adds weight to scenes involving infidelity, illness and ego, but those elements also read like some standard soap-opera button-pushing. Zilberman’s film wavers between profundity and cliché for most of its running time.
Titled in some markets the more accurately descriptive 'The Last Quartet’, the story finds its moral and emotional core in the form of Christopher Walken’s veteran cellist Peter. Thirty years older than his bandmates, he is still grieving the loss of his wife and a career-ending medical diagnosis. The early scenes are all Walken’s and, absent the ironic riffing on his own delivery that was so irksome in Seven Psychopaths (to name the most recent example), it is some of the actor’s most pleasingly natural work.
But soon the focus shifts and re-shifts between his less interesting colleagues. Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s second-violinist Robert seeks the fame usually reserved for Mark Ivanir’s ultra-conservative (dare I say, highly strung) first-violinist Daniel. Robert is married to the group’s violist Juliette (Katherine Keener), an ex-flame of Daniel’s who finds herself caught between their egotistical bickering.
Under pressure to decide how to proceed if Peter doesn’t respond to treatment in time for opening night, relationships crumble and tensions boil over. Robert’s illicit all-nighter with fiery flamenco dancer Pilar (Lira Charhi) would not be out of place in a telenovela; Daniel’s decision to bed Robert and Juliette’s daughter Alex (a pretty but brattish Imogen Potts) is out of character. Ivanir, who was so good in 2010’s The Human Resources Manager, provides Daniel with layers that aren’t immediately apparent in Zilberman’s and co-writers Seth Grossman’s script.
All this sudsy plotting is watchable given the ensemble’s collective prowess yet often feels like padding between the scenes of the quartet’s rehearsals and performances. The piece of music most central to the drama is Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131. The lengthy, physically grueling piece takes on particular relevance given Robert’s illness and plays a significant role in the emotionally-charged final moments (not unlike the seemingly insurmountable Rachmananoff piece that was the central to the David Helfgott biopic, Shine). The commitment to the most minute technical detail (dialogue about reeds, bows, timbres, etc, never sound false) affords the film far more integrity than its occasionally sappy script deserves.