In A Late Quartet, a somber, moody and uneven film about chamber music and the dedicated professional musicians who devote their lives to playing it, Christopher Walken takes some getting used to as a renowned cellist with Parkinson’s disease who is forced begrudgingly to end his career as leader of one of the world’s most celebrated string quartets. A far cry from the lurid and sloppy addicts, psychopaths and serial killers he usually plays as though walking in his sleep, it’s not the kind of role I would personally think of as perfect casting for him. Also, the movie is too slow, highbrow and sophisticated to draw the youth market that loves to see Mr. Walken play violent and stoned in trash like Seven Psychopaths. But playing the cello is such a pleasant change of pace that he eventually grows on you, scene by scene, proving for the first time since his role as Leonardo DiCaprio’s troubled father 10 years ago in Catch Me If You Can, that he really can act. He—along with the rest of the elegant cast—keeps A Late Quartet in tune when it threatens to go flat.
The Fugue, a famous ensemble much like the Guarneri Quartet, has been filling concert halls for 25 years. It consists of cellist-concertmaster Peter Mitchell (Mr. Walken), first violinist Daniel Lerner (Mark Ivanir), second violinist Robert Gelbart (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Robert’s wife, Juliette (Catherine Keener), on viola. As the new season begins, they are rehearsing all seven movements of the intricate Beethoven String Quartet, Opus 13. As soon as you realize the film runs the length of most chamber music concerts, you might panic at the thought of being forced to sit through the whole thing. Not to worry. Director Yaron Zilberman soon makes it clear that he is more interested in the emotional upheavals in the lives of the four high-strung musicians than he is in the music they play. It takes a long time to get around to the program they’re rehearsing, and by then you might wish they had started earlier. As soon as Peter’s crippling disease is diagnosed, the theme becomes “Move Over, Beethoven.”
You know it’s coming when Mr. Walken starts stretching his fingers to strengthen the grip on his bow. Clearly his reflexes and coordination are failing. The others, who have been with him for a quarter of a century, look the other way. But this is a pragmatic perfectionist. He starts to plan his farewell concert and seek a replacement. Robert, the second violinist, takes this inopportune time to announce his long-festering resentment of Daniel, the first violinist, who refuses to alternate solos.
The tension grows, opening a floodgate when Peter announces his plan to hire Robert and Juliette’s daughter Alexandra (Imogen Poots), who is a talented and promising cellist on her way to stardom, to replace him. Further complicating the volatility of an already complex situation is the fact that without Robert and Juliette’s knowledge, Alexandra, who feels neglected and ignored by her parents, is sleeping with the sensitive and petulant Daniel, her coach, who years earlier had an affair with Juliette, now causing a rift between mother and daughter. Worse still, Juliette, who never fully committed to her husband, catches Robert working out his frustrations in bed with another woman, and their marriage collapses. What began as an intelligent film about real music (instead of the junk that poisons contemporary rock soundtracks) loses its way and collapses under the weight of a shameless soap opera. With so much sturm und drang,it’s a miracle these musicians ever find the time to play a simple adagio.
Everyone ends up emotionally shredded, with the future of the Fugue Quartet endangered. Like all passionate artists, however, they come to their senses in time to realize that craft comes first and personal lives are a lower priority, and in the final minutes, we at last get around to the Beethoven. The movie sometimes gets stuck in its own awkward groove like a needle on a warped phonograph, but it has its moments. The script, co-written by the director Mr. Zilberman and Seth Grossman, contains technical information about how to construct, polish and cherish a good violin, and the four actors make you believe they actually know how to play their instruments. They skillfully demonstrate how each member of the quartet brings to the table one of the four legs that hold it upright: Mr. Ivanir has enough precision and driving perfectionism for four, Mr. Hoffman adds color and texture, Ms. Keener provides the mournful passion, and Mr. Walken is the patriarch of the group, with the heart, soul and discipline to keep the music balanced. The pileup of romantic entanglements and competitive egos gets in the way of the music, but the soundtrack is glorious, even if it is truncated. The final concert was filmed on the actual stage at the Metroplitan Museum, where the Guarneri Quartet gave its final performance after 45 years together. In A Late Quartet, life imitates art in more ways than one.
A LATE QUARTET
Running Time 105 minutes
Written by Seth Grossman and Yaron Zilberman
Directed by Yaron Zilberman
Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christopher Walken and Catherine Keener