Music offsets a flat narrative
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, November 2, 2012
“A Late Quartet” is a half-glass of a movie, full of superlative performances and sublime music but empty when it comes to a story rife with melodrama and trite plot conventions.
The fiction debut of documentary filmmaker Yaron Zilberman (“Watermarks”), “A Late Quartet” tells the story of a longtime chamber music group facing the possibility of disbanding when one of its members receives unexpected personal news.
As that group member, a soft-spoken cellist named Peter, Christopher Walken proves he’s much more than the idiosyncratic delivery and weird mannerisms that have made him the go-to guy for quirky, spooky roles. Here, Walken lends pathos and dignity to a man who for two decades has acted as teacher, mentor and father figure to his fellow musicians; as the latter, he has had the most impact on violist Juliette (Catherine Keener), who is married to violinist Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who in turn nurses an unspoken rivalry with first-chair violinist Daniel (Mark Ivanir).
As long as Zilberman is focusing on the relationships and fiery psycho-dynamics within the tight-knit group, “A Late Quartet” hums along, with the cast ably finessing the gestures and actual playing that their roles entail, as well as the manifestations of familiarity, competition, ego and insecurity that animate any long-term group creative endeavor. (And judging from what looks like an original Gerhard Richter in Daniel’s tastefully kitted-out apartment, that endeavor has been hugely successful.)
Coming fresh from his volcanic performance as the manipulative cult leader in “The Master,” Hoffman is especially convincing as the slightly rumpled, embittered artist who sees himself as a perpetually overlooked also-ran. Reportedly, he and his co-stars learned to play segments of Beethoven’s Opus 131 in C-sharp minor, the exquisite piece that serves as “A Late Quartet’s” musical leitmotif. The music itself is as pleasurable as beholding four accomplished actors working in concert and serves as a crucial and vivid fifth character in the ensemble. (Fans of the Guarneri String Quartet will no doubt see some similarities here, including the setting of a crucial scene in a recital hall at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)
As assured as Zilberman is with the music and group politics, he’s less inventive when it comes to the other story lines, which run to especially hackneyed cliche when it comes to one or two extracurricular activities, including one involving Robert and Juliette’s prodigy daughter (played by Imogen Poots). That narrative weakness makes “A Late Quartet” less a fully realized drama than a divertissement, albeit an exceptionally tuneful one. If it isn’t consistently interesting to watch, it nearly always rewards close listening.
Contains profanity and some sexuality.