Late Quartet, AReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 11/26/12 21:25:55
"A Late Quartet" starts out with a fair amount of promise: It's got a cast full of fine character actors, a somewhat unusual setting in the world of classical music, and a premise that is easy to grasp but which has the potential for great drama. All of this is good enough that when the story wanders into conventional soap opera territory, one might groan a little - all the movie has going for it, and they're going to spend time on this?The New York-based string quartet "Fugue" has been playing together for about twenty-five years. Peter Mitchell (Christopher Walken), the oldest member, plays cello; Daniel Lerner (Mark Ivanir) is first violin; Robert Gelbart (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is second; and his wife Juliette (Catherine Keener) plays viola. They're intertwined in other ways, too; Peter is a professor during the off-season and the Gelbarts' daughter Alexandra (Imogen Poots) is in his class, good enough that he recommends Daniel tutor her. It's a cozy situation, but a tremor in Peter's hands turns out to be the early stages of Parkinson's, and medication can only do so much for so long.
Writer/director Yaron Zilberman establishes a couple of interesting and overlapping themes early on: There's the fear of change versus its absolute inevitability; there's how music can be a living, evolving thing from performance to performance or static and practiced, and how people can be much the same. Zilberman doesn't play coy with any of this; heck, Peter ruminates on those sort of things when lecturing Alex's class. But there's something to it, and the details of this particular setting are interesting enough to resonate for even non-enthusiasts.
And then someone sleeps with someone else for entirely familiar reasons, and it's more than a little deflating, especially since there's just been brief glimpses of Peter dealing with his diagnosis and weighing the pros and cons of medication, or Robert making the case that with change coming to the group, maybe he should no longer always literally play second fiddle to Daniel, or Alexandra trying to adjust to Daniel's rigid perfectionism compared to Peter's more encouraging style. All of that material is specific to this story, setting, and characters, and that specificity is good - it's what makes the movie a unique experience. After all, everyone has seen long-standing relationships fall apart because of infidelity or impropriety, and there's nothing new or exciting to those parts of the movie.
Focusing on that stuff also means less time given to Christopher Walken, who winds up spending a fair amount of time as the rock of the group when his character's uncertain future is one of the more interesting things the movie has going. He's a pro and makes it work for him, of course, letting what can often be a stony-faced demeanor play as wisdom, and showing himself to be a fine storyteller both in the classroom and on-stage. He's just as good in moments where he's not saying anything, especially in a brief glimpse of his physical therapy or a dinner with an old friend played by Wallace Shawn.
(And speaking of him, one of the movie's late pleasures is remembering where Shawn's character is seated in the audience during a performance scene and seeking his reactions out from among the crowd.)
The rest of the cast is more involved in the melodrama, but generally comes out looking pretty good. Mark Ivanir has what is likely the most interesting role, the genius and leader of the group whose intellect and talent has him stunted in other areas. There's a bit of that to Catherine Keener's Juliette, too, and it makes the scenes with her more emotional husband interesting. It seems unusual for Philip Seymour Hoffman to play the earthier, less aloof character here, but enjoyable; he's able to maintain a lot of audience sympathy despite his character being the one who introduces a lot of disruption to the group.The cast does so well in emphasizing what's interesting about the group as musicians that it's a shame the more conventional material comes up. "A Late Quartet" knows its classical music and is able to make it interesting even to those without a particularly strong interest, so it's a real shame that the filmmakers don't seem to trust the drama that arises from that area to carry the movie.more than they do, since that's the good stuff.
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