Why do classical pieces of music keep affecting the listener? It’s certainly not the novelty or originality that’s so appealing. It’s also not the musicians’ ability to “reimagine” them. This we know from the endlessly violated Beethoven’s Fifth, where every time we hear a new pop or dance song incorporating these sublime notes, somewhere, as a direct result of this cosmic abomination, a puppy dies. What is so engaging, so touching about most of these classical pieces is precisely their familiarity. It’s just up to the musician to do them justice.
Similarly you don’t always look for groundbreaking originality in a film. And for A Late Quartet, that is a definite strength.
Yes, the film, as you might guess from this trailer, is as by-the-numbers as humanly possible. And it doesn’t draw from it one bit.
We follow a string quartet, made up from an aging cellist with early-stage Parkinson’s, Peter (Christopher Walken), a methodical but brilliant lead violinist, Daniel (Mark Ivanir), a passionate but unsettled second violinist, Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and his wife, the viola player Juliette (Catherine Keener).
As the quartet heads into its 26th straight concert season, cracks start to appear everywhere, with Peter’s illness, Robert and Juliette’s marital issues, Robert’s jealousy towards Daniel’s “hogging” of the lead role and the couple’s daughter Alexandra (Imogen Poots) all contributing to what seems to be the certain demise of the long-running collaboration.
As the film hits notes as familiar as the piece the quartet is playing, Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14, opus 131 (itself often referred to as the late quartet), we get to know characters that quickly delve well below the surface of each one’s archetypal description. And now it gets really hard not to get carried away with superlatives and cliched musical references.
Much of the film’s driving force relies on Hoffman’s trusty shoulders, as he plays the passionate and distraught Robert with such conviction it’s hard not to be on his side, even when he makes horrible decisions. His antithesis is Ivanir as Daniel, whose approach to his character is no less meticulous and precise than Daniel’s to his art. Admittedly, he strains credibility in a late plot development, but it’s only a minor fault to a performance that’s designed to make other filmmakers take note and get this guy something more than the odd cameo in a Spielberg film.
The character of Juliette is ripe for a horribly melodramatic cringe-fest in the hands of a weaker actress, but instead, Keener brings a tender and grounded touch to her role, projecting a strained sadness towards the quartet’s demise, rather than the obvious hysteria. Poots’ Alexandra is possibly the least-developed character in terms of delving below the surface, but Poots performs admirably and holds her own against the acting heavyweights all around her.
The biggest feather in the quartet’s collective hat though emphatically belongs to one Christopher Walken. As Mr. Showsupinthemiddleofafilm finally gets a fleshed-out character, he displays a weakness and fragility to Peter not usually associated with Walken. He restrains every gesture, every word, while displaying an insight and timing befitting a grand master (all of this applies to both Peter and Walken) and in the process gains such respect and empathy that it’s hard to go through the final scenes without it suddenly becoming very dusty in the room.
From a technical aspect the film is very simple. It’s effectively shot and edited, and of course, the music is flawless. Everything is set up by director Yaron Zilberman to complement the performers, exactly the right decision for a film of this type.
Final Verdict: The film mirrors a classical piece of music, Beethoven’s opus 131, which in turn claims to mirror life, in that no matter what happens, it must go on, without pause. And like that piece, all the film’s notes are instantly familiar and recognizable. Those notes, however, are played with such precision and conviction, highlighted by an understated, fantastic performance by Christopher Walken, that A Late Quartet ends up as a deeply moving film.