So, there’s this successful string quartet in New York called The Fugue. They’ve been together for 25 years, won awards, played all over the world, fame, success, etc. They all met in school. One was a teacher who became the grounding cellist, one was a music prodigy who took first violin, the viola was claimed by a beautiful young woman, and the second violin chair went to a man who loved her. There was a marriage and a child. Everything was peachy keen. Then one day the cellist discovered he had Parkinson’s disease and would soon have to retire. Tensions rose as a replacement being hunted. The second violinist wanted to occasionally play first chair. There was a fight. First chair started dating the college age daughter of his partners. More fighting. Then the husband cheated on his wife. Additionally fighting. The only thing that held them together was the quartet and a desire within the group to go out in style with Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14, Op. 131, an emotional roller coaster that the composer insists is never played interrupted. That’s the plot of A Late Quartet, and I lay it out first because it sounds like it will probably be rather dry, boring, and melodramatic. Yet somehow, rather miraculously, the film works and works well.
Actually, I shouldn’t make it sound that mysterious. There’s a fairly straightforward reason for A Late Quartet’s success. The cellist is played by Christopher Walken and the viola/2nd violent bickering couple roles are brought to life by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener. It’s amazing how simply casting actors that good so well can elevate even the driest material. Yes, the film is about a group of musicians and a great deal of screen time is dedicated to watching them practice their craft and pontificate on the nature of a quartet. But really, the film is about a family falling apart. It’s not a revelation to admit that music groups (classical and otherwise) are little families with all of the struggles, bickering, love and hatred that implies. What first-time director Yaron Zilberman and his cast seem most interested in exploring is watching that bond stretch and shatter without anyone ever letting go.
Christopher Walken is the de facto patriarch of the quartet and the film itself. The man is known best for creating characters so creepy that audiences want to set up restraining orders or surreal, cripplingly funny comedy creations that often involve a request for cowbell. Yet, he’s a better actor that horror, gangster, or comedy genre trappings will often allow. It might be hard to see him as human beyond his iconic screen presence, but given him the chance to play a simple man in crisis like he does here and he’ll break your heart. Walken’s cellist is a quiet man who is uncomfortable expressing his emotions. Going through the physical breakdown of Parkinson’s is a nightmare, but trying to explain that to those closest to him is almost worse. For such a strong actor, Walken plays a weak soul perfectly, and his work in the movie is some of his best outside of his eccentric genre movie comfort zone.
Unlike Walken, Catherine Keener and Philip Seymour Hoffman essentially slide into their established big screen personas. Hoffman plays a depressed sadsack desperate for attention that ruins his life and marriage out of spite. Keener on the other hand plays a strong, independent woman who can be a little too manipulative at times and have it blow up in her face. We’ve seen them play these sorts of characters before, but seeing them play off each other is another matter entirely. Hoffman delivers one of his characters so pathetic that he makes viewers uncomfortable while Keens absent-mindedly walks over him until having to fall apart and accept the consequences. Their couple feels lived in and real and watching their marriage slip away is as immediately affecting as seeing it happen to a friend. Mark Ivanir and Imogen Poots play the first violinist and daughter who break up the marriage. Both are strong enough performers to hold their own against Keener, Hoffman, and Walken, but aren’t quite on the same level. You’ll watch this movie about a quartet for the work of a trio and even if that math doesn’t quite add up, it’s worth it.
The performances are the strength of the movie, but first time feature writer/director Yaron Ziberman has enough talent to at least hold things together. His story can often spiral off into melodramatic areas, but the emotions and relationships are always grounded in reality. It’s a chamber piece about an old family finally letting secrets and revelations come between them to see if their bonds are strong enough to hold together. Music is the core and a frequent metaphor for the filmmaker, but it’s presented in such a way to be immediately accessible even outside of viewers who have ever attended a performance by a quartet. Ziberman’s film is about the people and his observations are affecting enough to transcend the setting. With another cast, it might all seem dull. But this is an actor’s movie and with these three big boys delivering the goods it’s hard to look away. It’s not a film that will get you riled up (there’s not a machine gun in sight) or touch you deep enough to stick with you. But if you love these actors, the experience is worth it. Walken, Keener, and Hoffman act their balls (and lady balls) off in A Late Quartet and it’s enough to make you wish more films with roles this rich were available to those actors. If they can make this story that compelling, there must be another project out there that the trio could turn into a masterpiece.