‘A Late Quartet’ Review
I am an extremely smart, well-educated man. However there are aspects of refined culture that always seem to escape me. Example: I recently took a wine tasting tour in France. "What can you say about this one?" I was asked. "Um, it's good?" "Yes, but notice how the tannins aren't too rich in the front but the finish is clear in the back? And the notes of black current, honey and tobacco smoke?" "I taste grape."
I'm exaggerating, but this is what I want to shout during most movie scenes featuring classical musicians practicing a piece. It sounds fine, then the teacher comes in and shouts, "No! You have to FEEL it, to understand what the composer was saying about heartache and despair!" And then the teacher proceeds to play it in pretty much the exact same way.
It drives me crazy and, to be sure, it happens in 'A Late Quartet,' but, luckily by this point of the film you are quite in tune with the different characters -- know them, even -- and are willing to let it slide. Frankly, a great deal of 'A Late Quartet,' a gossipy soap opera for the NPR-set, is forgiven because of its marvelous cast.
Christopher Walken, basso profundo, is the elder statesman and cellist in the titular quartet, and his discovery of the onset of Parkinson's is what gets this piece started. Catherine Keener (viola) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (2nd violin) are the married couple whose 25-year relationship may have been more of a performance than they realize, and Israeli actor Mark Ivanir plays the brooding, too-serious lead violin. Imogen Poots, winner of this year's Scarlett Johansson Award for Flounced Sexuality, plays Hoffman/Keener's daughter and, well, I'll leave it to you to figure out what happens when Ivanir takes her up to a horse farm to find hair for a new violin bow. (She's a musician, too.)
With Walken facing a decline in his ability, he decides the time has come to look for a replacement for his part in the group. Sensing an opportunity for change, Hoffman expresses his desire to share the lead violin position. (Whether or not he really believes he can do this, or this is just an attempt to impress a Flamenco dancer he knows remains to be seen. And yes, this movie takes place in a world where people know Flamenco dancers.) Soon the group is in existential turmoil and 25 seasons of poise and professionalism become unravelled. Punches are thrown, insults are hurled and a violinist has to hide on the balcony lest his midday intermezzo get discovered.
'A Late Quartet' uses Beethoven's "String Quartet No. 14" as an extended metaphor. It is a lengthy piece, meant to be played with no breaks, risking the possibility of the instruments getting out of tune with one another at the end. When the four characters formed the quartet all those years ago they each sought their own sort of refuge. It was a wise career move, but a safe one. At this juncture they must decide whether it is more important to preserve that legacy or take a potentially devastating risk.
Classical musicians are fascinating. To be at the top of their game they must be obsessives. They live a well-heeled life but are, at least in America, wards of corporate tax shelter donations. They play a music that is all preordained -- written down in centuries-old manuscripts, with no room for improvisation -- yet continually bicker about personal style and emotional interpretation. What a treat for a good actor, and each of the five (including young Poots) grab onto the bow really go to town.
The standout, however, is Walken, and he's not just getting a sympathy vote. Indeed, he downplays his rehabilitation scenes and only goes for the heartstrings when absolutely necessary. He also lets in a soupçon of that "more cowbell" insanity he's known for of late. This doesn't just add some unexpected color to certain moments, it quickly puts those viewers who may worry they can't take Walken seriously anymore in their place. Lord knows what sort of promotional campaign a movie like this will get, but if I were in charge of everything I'd be sure Walken would get a Best Supporting Actor nomination, to be sure.
**Bonus points for hardcore film nerds. 'A Late Quartet' opens with an RKO Pictures logo. You don't see that every day.
'A Late Quartet' hits theaters hits select theaters Friday, November 2.
Jordan Hoffman was the movies editor at Hearst Digital’s UGO for four years and currently contributes to SlashFilm, MTV’s NextMovie and StarTrek.com. He’s made two marginally successful independent movies, is a member of the New York Film Critics Online and was named IFC’s Ultimate Film Fanatic of the NorthEast in 2004. Follow him on Twitter at @JHoffman6.