The rarefied world of classical music is the setting and the intimate "perfect square" of a string quartet the crucible for "A Late Quartet," a melodrama of love, lust, betrayal and Beethoven. It's a quiet film of tempestuous but predictable situations and emotions, a soap opera made watchable by its illustrious cast.
Christopher Walken is Peter, the wizened cellist whose early-onset Parkinson's Disease throws the famed Fugue Quartet into turmoil. Twenty-five years and 3,000 recitals into their history, things are changing, because "playing for much longer is not in the cards for me."
The maneuvering starts in an instant. Peter has a replacement cellist in mind. Jules (Catherine Keener), the violist, is empathetic, concerned for Peter. But Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the long-fuming second violin, sees this as a chance to move up in the ranks.
"How's Mr. Perfection coping with the situation?" he asks Jules. He's asking her because she's his colleague, and his icy, remote wife. "Mr. Perfection" is Daniel (Mark Ivanir). He earned that nickname due to his precise playing, his obsessive attention to the minutia of the well-worn pieces of music that are their repertoire, and the fact that he makes his own bows. No one else can carve and shape the wood, get the horsehair just right.
Daniel's perfectionism is why he's the perfect teacher and judge of Jules and Robert's daughter's talent. And since violinist Alex is played by the fetching, cocky and young Imogen Poots ("Scott Pilgrim vs. The World"), you can guess where that's headed.
Director and co-writer Yaron Zilberman, moving from documentaries to features, gives some characters warm anecdotes about Beethoven, the cellist Pablo Casals and Schubert. He serves up a civilized world where egos are kept in check by good manners and putting Beethoven (his seven-movement Opus 131 quartet is the centerpiece here) and the Fugue first, in all conversations.
"It's the Fugue, Daniel," is Peter's last wish - that the group carry on.
That civility makes the explosions - confessions, arguments, accusations - pay off. Or would, if they were anything other than predictable.
And while it's easy to stage and set up the dynamic of a long-time association, a coed "band" that's been working together too long and playing the same pieces forever and perhaps swapped romantic partners on occasion (think Fleetwood Mac), faking the violin, cello and viola isn't easy. Introducing real musicians, here and there, only throws the actor's attempts at bowing into the spotlight - where they're found wanting.
But the ensemble of actors are very much "in the pocket," as musicians say. Poots is unrecognizably confident and headstrong, Walken takes another pass at playing the human heart of the piece, Hoffman ably plays gruff and needy. And Keener, with a single, resigned, sunken shrug, lets us know Jules has discovered yet another betrayal. Wallace Shawn is spot on in a single scene as the pianist of a piano trio.
It's a lot of tempest to pour into a single teapot, but as Robert explains, "We've shared an intense life together for 25 years."
Sadly, in "A Late Quartet," that intensity too often wafts away like notes decaying at the end of a concert. That makes this a quartet whose music and impact are too muted to matter.
A LATE QUARTET
2 1/2 stars (Grade: C-plus)
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Christopher Walken, Mark Ivanir, Imogen Poots
Directed by Yaron Zilberman, written by Seth Grossman and Yaron Zilberman. An eOne release.
Running time: 1:46
MPAA rating: R for language and some sexuality
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