[Review] – A Late Quartet

16 Nov

Title: A Late Quartet
Year: 2012
Director: Yaron Zilberman
Writers: Seth Grossman and Yaron Zilberman
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christopher Walken, Catherine Keener, Mark Ivanir, Imogen Poots, Wallace Shawn
MPAA Rating: R, language and some sexuality
Runtime: 105 min
IMDb Rating: 6.0
Rotten Tomatoes: 77%
Metacritic: 67

Near the end of this year a film called Quartet will come out and make a limited theatrical run in order to qualify for awards consideration. That film is Dustin Hoffman‘s directorial debut, stars amazing actors like Maggie Smith and Michael Gambon, focusses on a retirement home for opera musicians and looks pretty great. That film’s not to be confused with the one that’s out now, A Late Quartet, which may not have the big-name director (this is Yaron Zilberman‘s feature debut) but that does have amazing actors, including Philip Seymour Hoffman and Christopher Walken and is also pretty great.

The film really is, by the way, as good as it is because of its outstanding cast. After all, the screenplay (co-written by Mr. Zilberman with Seth Grossman) does admittedly have all the trappings of a sappy melodrama, but these actors are some of the best at what they do and they make this film so rich with depth and just deliver these killer performances that make it a damn good movie. This is good cinema for adults, for those who don’t explosions and can just get behind such an immersive character-driven story and watch in awe at the actors on screen.

It’s a movie that will have people that love chamber music in awe of its power, and that really just serves as this lovely homage to what a culturally rich place New York City is. That titular quartet is a world-renowned string one on the eve of playing a concert to mark their 25th anniversary together. It’s then when they receive the news that Peter, the cellist played by Mr. Walken, is in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease. That’s the news that rocks the core and that makes everything come out; all the suppressed emotions and egos that had been kept in check in order to create art in a peaceful environment threaten to come out.

I love music and even though I’m particularly well-versed in the subject of chamber music in specific I know that this film was made with so much love for it and, best of all, it was made with a hell of a lot of knowledge about it. Seriously, even if you don’t know much at all about string quartets not only will you leave knowing considerably more, and with the biggest respect in the world to the tremendously gifted people who integrate them, but you’ll be left entirely convinced that Mr. Zilberman and Mr. Grossman do know exactly what they’re talking about.

Another thing I wasn’t familiar with was the work of Mark Ivanir. I knew him because he had an arc on the latest season of USA‘s Royal Pains, but I didn’t know he could be this good, especially considering the three other faces that make up the titular quartet with him. He’s the first violin, Daniel, the youngest member of the group; Mr. Walken’s Peter is the wise cellist; Mr. Hoffman is Robert, the second violin and Catherine Keener is Juliette, Robert’s wife and the one in charge of the viola. The biggest joy of watching A Late Quartet comes simply from watching these four actors playing off each other.

The whole movie is beautifully structured around Beethoven’s Opus 131 String Quartet in C-sharp minor, a piece that Peter thinks may be the last he plays. Around that you get all these melodramatic themes from adultery to envy to high tension, and you even get Imogen Poots as Robert and Juliette’s daughter to provide some mother-daughter quarreling. Like I said, the material isn’t groundbreaking and it could have made for a kind of bothersome picture; if the script were a piece of music it would something conventional, not a Beethoven. But what matters is that you have these actors, and even though some of them are well within their comfort zones it’s still a damn pleasure.

Because, yes, Philip Seymour Hoffman can play a frustrated guy without trying by now, but he’s still one of the five greatest living actors we have, in my opinion, so it’s amazing to see him be this guy who realizes he no longer wants to play second fiddle, both to Daniel in the quartet and to Juliette in their marriage. And if you’ve seen Capote then you know Mr. Hoffman and Ms. Keener have just the most exquisite sense of interaction with one another when they share the screen, and the same can be said here.

If anything, the one who doesn’t play his usual self is Mr. Walken, an actor who’s often seen as a caricature (and who has no problem making fun of that himself) and who already gave us one of the best performances of the year in Seven Psychopaths; here he is playing a gentler part, totally subdued and suggesting a depth and intelligence to his character that really makes him the terrific ensemble’s highlight, a heartbreaking masterclass in acting.

This is a little gem of a movie. A screenplay that even though sounded melodramatic was probably written knowing that actors would come in and save the day and transcend those apparent limitations, making it a piece of art that’s impossible to resist. Such was the case here, the quartet of actors bringing the quartet of musicians to splendid life no matter how sappy the scenarios or uneven the dialogue. Not to mention that the movie closes with a wonderful musical performance and a tremendous monologue from Mr. Walken, and no disrespect to good ol’ Ludwig van, but Mr. Walken ends up being the best out of those two things.

Grade: A-

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2 Responses to “[Review] – A Late Quartet”

  1. bobritzema December 20, 2012 at 11:21 am #

    Good review. I saw the movie last week and am still thinking about it. I agree about the quality of the acting and the knowledge gained about quartets. For me, the most interesting thing about the movie was how playing Op. 131 was used as a metaphor for relationships. All the instruments will go out of tune, and the only way to keep from being discordant is to listen to the sounds produced both by ourselves and others, then constantly adjust.

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