3.5 / 5 stars
Within the classical music drama A Late Quartet, there’s a better film ready to leap out. It involves Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener, two of the finer and more dependable actors in film today, playing a troubled couple in a renowned string quartet that’s destined for dissolution (it’s their third pairing after Synecdoche, New York and Capote). Their acting is what you’d expect: Sympathetic, honest and a little heart-wrenching, each actor working within his or her signature style. Theirs are the best performances, in the best storyline, of this disappointingly uneven film. (Click on the movie poster for a closer view.)
When Hoffman and Keener are onscreen as Robert and Juliette Gelbart, Yaron Zilberman’s debut feature plays its most beautiful and intelligent music, the director/co-writer clearly understanding the value both actors bring to a film. But A Late Quartet aims to tell a bigger story and suffers from its own ambition – not unlike its characters, by the way – relying on a framework too flimsy to support its own weight.
The foursome of the title is a venerable group called The Fugue Quartet, a respected outfit who gets some bad news just prior to their 25th anniversary tour: Elder statesman Peter Mitchell (Christopher Walken), a passionate teacher and cellist, is diagnosed with the early symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease. Walken delivers the news to the others quickly and plainly, and it’s received without the histrionics and dramatic clichés that would be beneath the talents of the cast (rounded out by Russian actor Mark Ivanir, the weak link of the four). That subdued tone is consistent enough throughout A Late Quartet, and it’s one of the film’s real pluses.
Peter’s potential deterioration puts some emotions in motion, confirming that, for all their education and refinement, classical musicians can be real pricks. Hoffman’s Robert immediately considers Peter’s voluntary departure as an opportunity to move from second violin chair to first, a selfish motivation that pisses off his peers and leads to layers of trouble with wife Juliette. Unfortunately for the film, the breakdown of Robert and Juliette’s marriage is more dramatically satisfying than the collapse of the quartet.
And it’s far more complex than the movie’s other romantic relationship, an annoying fling between Ivanir’s obsessive violin virtuoso and the Gelbarts’ barely-adult daughter Alex (Imogen Poots). Both actors’ dialogue and action come up short relative to the rest of the movie, leaving the characters painfully one-dimensional. Poots is given an excellent opportunity to expand on Alex in an explosive sequence with Keener, and she holds her own with her more experienced co-star.
For all the emotional treachery and acting effort, it’s actually tough to buy the four stars as a real quartet. When they sit down to rehearse, there’s an intangible strangeness; it doesn’t look like they’ve played together for 25 minutes, never mind 25 years. Additional sequences from a faux documentary about the quartet make matters worse, with stagy, archived photos of the group feeling like moments from some classical music version of Spinal Tap. It’s not funny, but it’s close.
Playing more into his film’s strengths, director Zilberman ends A Late Quartet with a musical performance, the reason everyone is there in the first place. The sequence is longer than you might expect, giving an appropriate respect to the music, as well as the acting acumen that got us there. In this quiet coda, the talented cast tie it all together and convey the film’s final notes with glances and touches, leaving it all out there on the stage. Close curtain.