Mark Reviews Movies

A Late Quartet


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Yaron Zilberman

Cast: Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Mark Ivanir, Imogen Poots

MPAA Rating: R (for language and some sexuality)

Running Time: 1:45

Release Date: 11/2/12 (limited)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | November 1, 2012

The cellist tells his students the story of his first encounter with a famous musician. He played terribly in front of the man, yet the musician complimented his skill. He did not appreciate what he believed to be hollow praise. Later in life, the cellist had the opportunity to play with his former idol professionally, and one night, he told the man about the incident and what he thought of it. The musician, outraged, pointed out that he had been sincere; instead of focusing on the negatives, though, he simply emphasized the positives. He would prefer to see and recognize a brief moment of transcendence—his word and a good one—than pick apart the faults.

One feels this story in A Late Quartet is aimed directly at us as we watch the movie, for there are some real moments that approach that good word here. It's mostly in the performances, especially as the actors capture the characters at their weakest. The cellist's story is perhaps the strongest moment, as it allows Christopher Walken to tell a story that sums up the very essence of his character.

Another scene, in which Walken's Peter Mitchell sits in the study of his large and lonely home while listening to a record of his late wife singing, is even more transfixing, if only for a bit. Writer/director Yaron Zilberman simply keeps the camera on Walken's face as the woman's voice hits his ears, and every memory that angelic sound brings begins to register on his visage before the pain settles there. It's a lovely and, yes, transcendent moment because of the simplicity of the image and the gradual sense of catharsis on Walken's face. Then the memory and the voice becomes tangible in form, as Peter's dead wife appears before him in an evening gown in a phantasmal private performance. The moment is gone.

Zilberman's tendency is to do this quite often in the movie. His screenplay will strike some genuine personal connection to its characters only to have the entire illusion of reality ruined by a metaphor (almost always musical and usually clumsily placed within the dialogue) or plot development that takes its story or characters one step or more too far. It's a constant shift into and eventual idling in the territory of melodrama as the string quartet falls apart as if on cue.

Peter, through no fault of his own, is the catalyst for the breakdown. During his first rehearsal for the new season with the quartet, he has trouble keeping up with the tempo. A visit to the doctor reveals that he is displaying the early signs of Parkinson's disease.

The other three are devastated. Peter wants to have a final, farewell performance if the medication starts working. Second violin Robert Gelbart (Philip Seymour Hoffman) believes he should have the opportunity to perform the first violin on occasion if the group is going be undergoing a change anyway. First violin Daniel Lerner (Mark Ivanir), a perfectionist, thinks that's a terrible idea and that Robert's timing is even worse. Robert's wife and the quartet's violist Juliette (Catherine Keener), whom Peter and his late wife raised since she was a child, does not want to think of the group without Peter.

The tension between Robert, Juliette, and Daniel starts quickly and escalates exponentially. Robert is upset with Juliette for refusing to take his side in the fight over first violin (They made an agreement to be objective when discussing music, which doesn't help his hurt feelings). Daniel is mad at Robert for even believing it to be a possibility. Juliette is furious with Robert after he makes a bad decision with a dancer (Liraz Charhi) he talks to while going for his morning jogs, and she winds up disappointed with Daniel when he and Alexandra (Imogen Poots), Juliette and Robert's daughter, go from a teacher-student relationship to something more (Robert tells him to follow his passion; this is the unintentional punch line).

It's all, as Peter alludes to in the movie's opening assessment of the musical pieces, akin to a quartet playing Beethoven's Late String Quartets, which have no pauses in between movements, meaning that the musicians must try to keep up with each other even as their instruments go out of tune (The movie is surprisingly minimal in its actual musical content, and even when the group plays during the climax, the composition is chopped up into short, insignificant highlights). If one buys that metaphor, the movie has a few others of similar triteness to share.

The performances from the leads are strong all around, but they are restricted by the limitations of the multiple, transparent conflicts (save for Walken's character, who is stunned to see how far gone the group becomes—another accidental punch line). No single moment—whether it be transcendent or not—can save A Late Quartet from that.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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