A Late Quartet has a high-toned cast — Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Christopher Walken. (It would have had Ethan Hawke, too, but he bailed at the last minute and the largely unknown Mark Ivanir stepped in.) It’s set in the classical music world of New York City. The film is awash in classical music — primarily Beethoven’s Opus 131 String Quartet — and a lot of deep-dish talk about music. It all but dares you not to like it — and if you don’t, you risk being branded culturally deficient. I guess I’m only semi-culturally deficient since I didn’t dislike it, but I absolutely couldn’t — and can’t — get excited about it either. It’s perfectly fine, but as I told a fellow critic who liked it more than I did, it’s the kind of movie that if you mention it to me a year from now, you’ll have to add, “You know, that movie with Christopher Walken as the ailing cellist in a string quartet.”
Unlike a lot of critics who have had problems with A Late Quartet, I don’t particularly object to the more melodramatic aspects of the plot (though I won’t deny they’re there). My trouble lies less in the screenplay than in the direction of first-time narrative-film director Yaron Zilberman. (He has a documentary to his credit from eight years ago.) He’s adept at making the most out of picturesque locations and he’s either OK with actors or he knows how to stand back and leave his seasoned cast alone. The catch in all this for me is I never detected any real feeling for the music. The movie talks about music — a lot — but when the music takes over, the movie just sits there. It’s hard for me to be excited by the music when the film doesn’t seem to be.
The story is interesting enough — if not always entirely believable. It concerns a world famous string quartet that’s been together for 25 years, an arrangement that’s about to be shattered when cellist Peter Mitchell (Walken) is diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. He hopes to be able to get through one more season, but even that is open to question. Also unknown is the future of the group. Even if they find a suitable replacement, there are tensions within the quartet, mostly from second violinist Robert Gelbart (Hoffman), who is tied of being second violinist. He also has issues with his wife, viola player Juliette (Keener), whom he suspects neither appreciates his real talent nor actually loves him. Further trouble will soon arise when first violinist Daniel Lerner (Ivanir) has an affair (not very well motivated) with the Gelbarts’ daughter, Alexandra (Imogen Poots, Fright Night).
Everyone in the film is good. Christopher Walken, in fact, is considerably more than good, but he probably has the least screen time. Mark Ivanir holds his own with the better known cast. (I seriously doubt Ethan Hawke would have done any better.) All the characters are given “their” scenes so that the big moments are fairly well balanced. But in the end, I just wasn’t as involved in the story or these people as I was supposed to be. You may feel differently. Rated R for language and some sexuality.
Playing at Fine Arts Theatre