An actor most wanted

An actor most wanted

Of course, this one has to be on Philip Seymour Hoffman. A little after I heard the news, I hunted out A Late Quartet — the last film I had liked of his — and watched it with pleasure, again. He had been turning up in too many movies lately to feel thrilled about a performance. And always straitjacketed into playing the urban neurotic, overindulging in some vice, and burning up. Too much intensity. He’s already an intense actor, and it would be nice, I thought, to see him play a regular person in a more relaxed, sweet performance. (It was the same thing with De Niro: it was more inviting to see him when he was not playing a bruised, stylized character, like the Hollywood producer he played in What Just Happened).

When A Late Quartet came out last year, I just had a feeling Philip Hoffman would have no scope to indulge in too much neurosis — the trailer told me that much: it was about a quartet of middle-aged (classical music-playing) musicians who are shaken up when one of them announces he wants to leave the quartet. They have played together professionally for decades now and found a way to harmonise in the quartet, attuned to each other’s quirks and playing style and formed deep friendships; how will it be if a new member joins them, what will happen to the finely calibrated balance? And on top of all this, the one leaving is the leader, the one who brought them together in the first place.

A Late Quartet stars Christopher Walken as the leader who has just discovered to his shock that he has an illness that won’t allow him to continue playing. When his fellow quartet musicians — Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener and Mark Ivaner — gather at his apartment, he breaks the news to them. There are other complications of course — Hoffman’s pretty daughter, played by the beautiful, young, new British actress Imogen Poots (ignore her name) has a crush on her violin teacher. When Hoffman discovers they are having an affair, the future of the quartet is further threatened. 

It’s a small, enjoyable film with little pleasures and delights that you don’t have a chance to experience in movies with a bigger scale and bigger stakes. One friend I strongly recommended the movie to said he was disappointed: he wanted or had expected there to be more scenes showing the quartet playing, and in concert. He didn’t think it would be such a full-scale melodrama. And it is melodramatic, I mean. I rather enjoyed that.

 These days, I’m sometimes too lazy for subtleties, understatement and slow burning dramas. I had hoped to see the quartet or even one of them rehearse more. I love rehearsals more than final performances, especially movie scenes showing actors or singers rehearing. There are some fine rehearsal scenes in A Late Quartet, but they are sadly brief and don’t linger long.

And Philip Seymour Hoffman is very nice in it. I think I first saw him in (the ironically titled) Happiness, playing (what else?) a neurotic and a loser and a loner. He debuted with roles like that. I don’t recall him in his first big screen debut as a school boy in Scent of a Woman (Al Pacino is much too distracting in it), but I do remember him playing a college kid in The Talented Mr Ripley — Jude Law’s rather frightening friend in Italy, who comes close to discovering Ripley’s (Matt Damon) secrets. I never did like him in his Oscar-winning role in Capote, or in the critically acclaimed Doubt. 

I preferred him in the smaller movies, from Sidney Lumet’s Before The Devil Knows You are Dead (he plays an addict) and the little-seen Synecdoche, New York to the shy screenwriter in David Mamet’s State and Main. But I think his best role, the one he should have won an Oscar for, is in The Master, as a guru, loosely based on the life of Scientology’s founder, Ron Hubbard. Hoffman has won several theatre awards, and I imagine he has done his best acting work there. But there is one exciting thing to look forward to — the yet to be released John Le Carre thriller, A Most Wanted Man, where Hoffman stars as Gunther Bachman, the head of a German spy network. 

According to the programme notes of the Sundance Film Festival, where A Most Wanted Man made its festival premier, “Anton Corbijn’s adaptation of John Le Carre’s psychological novel follows German spy Gunther Bachmann, as he tracks down Issa, a suspicious Chechen-Russian immigrant on the run in Hamburg. Pressured by his German and American colleagues to capture and interrogate his suspect as a Muslim terrorist, Bachmann instead asks for more time to carefully track Issa’s movements and his relationship with his German immigration lawyer, Annabel Richter. Corbijn’s captivating storytelling depicts the underbelly of the often-corrupt business of eliminating terrorists.”

“Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal,” the note goes on to say, “of Bachmann is breathtaking, as his complicated character strives to maintain his integrity in a grossly depraved industry awash with furtive motives.” At last, Hoffman gets the kind of lead role we most wanted to see him in: a modern spy! I mean to say: a man of action, not a tortured, self-absorbed introvert. A hero who takes an interest in the world, even if it means playing an unflattering spy! And I think this last performance of his, this swan song, will be his most unforgettable.

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