Review: ‘A Late Quartet’
The basic nature of stories is that a status quo is interrupted by some new development, and then characters must learn how to grapple with this upheaval and strive to settle their lives (Generally, this involves trying to restore the old paradigm, only to find a new one, which may or may not be better). It’s the cornerstone of drama, and in A Late Quartet, the idea of change is front and center. Don Draper said that change isn’t good or bad – it just is. But few people see it that way. This is a movie about change, and how we process it.
Peter (Christopher Walken), Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Juliette (Catherine Keener), and Daniel (Mark Ivanir) have been playing together as a string quartet for twenty-five years. They’ve enjoyed popularity, critical adulation, and personal satisfaction for all this time. But Peter, the cellist, is suffering the onset of Parkinson’s, and won’t be able to play much longer. Now the group faces the prospect of completely shifting their dynamic, and it starts a chain reaction through the rest of their personal lives. Robert, who has played second violin his whole career, wants to switch with Daniel to be first violin. Daniel begins feeling attracted to Robert and Juliette’s daughter Alexandra (Imogen Poots). As their 25th anniversary concert looms, the players’ issues collide and entangle until the survival of the quartet seems in question.
Peter and Robert are the pragmatists, and more adaptable. They embrace the idea of change, and aren’t satisfied with merely doing what’s always been done. Juliette and Daniel represent the opposite perspective, wanting to keep things as much the same as possible. It’s this fundamental clash of personalities that leads to much of the movie’s conflict, as it stirs up old resentments buried beneath the group’s seemingly tranquil surface.
Reading up on the movie after viewing it, I found that the director intended for its structure to mirror that of the eponymous musical composition, Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14, which has seven movements written to be played without interruption. I didn’t notice the seven acts during the film, but in retrospect, it explains why the movie doesn’t have a traditional feel to it. It’s purposefully driving its characters out of breath as they have to sort out their problems in time for their major performance.
There’s a lot going for A Late Quartet. The performances are top-notch. The cinematography, featuring a snow-wrapped New York, is lovely. And, as befits a film about music, the score is exquisite. But it’s all undercut by a subpar script. The plot feels like it’s going through too many of the familiar motions of a low-key drama, involving dealing with disease, marital infidelity, an illicit love affair, etc. After a while, the film devolves into a series of Big Confrontations, with characters throwing Dramatic Monologues at one another. It wasn’t until I realized that an emotionally fraught fight between Juliette and Alexandra was the only time that the two of them interacted in the whole film that it became apparent how little of this drama is actually earned.
But the movie works in spite of itself, and that rests firmly on the actors. Christopher Walken, between this and Seven Psychopaths, is having a fantastic year and is the standout. Going completely against type, he avoids a wackily insane character, instead giving a finely nuanced and reserved performance as a man staring down the end. It’s quietly heartbreaking. Mark Ivanir, the lowest-profile actor of the main quartet, also does great work as a man utterly committed to his craft. Movies often have trouble getting what it’s like to be truly passionate about something, but Daniel is someone whose whole world revolves around the violin, but who is also a fully-realized person as well. And even though he’s involved in a hot-for-teacher romance that can’t escape hints of male fantasizing, he still makes it work. And Hoffman and Keener are dependably great in everything, and this is no exception.
A Late Quartet is a very airy film. Even though it sometimes dips into emotional hysterics, it maintains a mood that’s akin to sitting in a library, listening to classical music while watching a snowfall. It’s a solid piece of work, the kind of movie that should be considered one the baselines of Hollywood quality, but which will probably be more highly regarded simply because the baseline is the inoffensive summer blockbuster. The writing hobbles it, but not nearly enough to make it not worth your while.