Nov 02 2012
Jonathan Kim is an independent film critic who writes and produces film reviews for Uprising and other outlets. He is a former co-producer at Brave New Films.
A Late Quartet
Maybe you’re like me and know next to nothing about classical music, string quartets, and the men and women who perform it. But none of those things kept me from enjoying ‘A Late Quartet’, an impressive indie film about a world-renowned string quartet as it grapples with the impending retirement of its leader and father figure. Naturally, it helps that that leader is played by Christopher Walken, and the other players include Philip Seymour Hoffman and Katherine Keener, as well as TV and video game-voice veteran Mark Ivanir. And if you’re a fan of classical music and, particularly classical music for string quartet, I imagine this is the movie you’ve been waiting for.
Walken plays Peter, the quartet’s cello player who learns early in the film that he has Parkinson’s Disease and will need to leave the quartet after guiding it for 25 years. Without his calming influence, a long-simmering power struggle erupts between the quartet’s two violinists. Daniel, played by Ivanir, is the first violin and an obsessive perfectionist, but Robert, played by Hoffman, has grown tired of Daniel’s style and literally playing second fiddle to him and wants to share the first violin spot. Caught in between is viola player Juliette, played by Keener, who is married to Robert and wants to support him, but feels that Daniel is the better musician. To complicate matters, not only did Juliette and Daniel used to be an item, but Daniel is tutoring Robert and Juliette’s college-age daughter Alexandra (played by Imogen Poots), who is a talented and promising violinist.
For their last concert, the quartet plans to play Beethoven’s Opus 131, one of Beethoven’s favorites that’s notable for being played “attaca”. That means the 40-minute piece is to be played without breaks, despite the fact that the players’ instruments will inevitably become out of tune at different rates, forcing the players to adjust on the fly to the changing sound of their instrument as well as those of their fellow players. As you’ve probably guessed, Opus 131 is a metaphor for the characters’ growing conflicts and also provides the film’s structure.
If all this classical music talk has your eyes glazing over, don’t sweat it. ‘A Late Quartet’ is much more about a somewhat incestuous family dynamic and the dysfunction that’s revealed when it looks like dad won’t be around to keep things in check. And while you get a fascinating, insightful look into the world of serious professional musicians, you could probably tell a similar story involving any group of people who have worked together at a high level for a long time, whether it’s the cast of a TV show, people running a business, or players on a sports team.
Of course, what makes all this work are the terrific performances that make it so easy to believe that these characters have known and worked with each other for 25 years. Hoffman, as usual, is excellent as a man who knows the importance of his supporting role but allows his simmering jealousy and resentment to jeopardize what’s most important to him. Keener is sympathetic as sort of the good daughter facing her inability to make everyone happy, while Ivanir is convincing as someone whose clinical quest for perfection has made him a novice at experiencing his own emotions. And it’s nice to see Walken playing a quiet, understated role while maintaining the commanding gravitas he so effortlessly exudes.
My one gripe about ‘A Late Quartet’ is a subplot with Daniel and Alexandra, which I thought was pretty unrealistic. But aside from that, ‘A Late Quartet’ is one of those really nice, small, independent films for adults that attracts great actors not with fat paychecks, but with the opportunity to do great work together, even if few ever see it. If you like classical music, ‘A Late Quartet’ is a no-brainer. If you don’t, but want to see a story about the tensions that can build over time in a group of experts, brought to life by some of the best actors in the game, you’ll be very satisfied.
‘A Late Quartet’ is rated R and opens today in select theaters.