Oh what a frustrating movie A Late Quartet turns out to be. What could have been an eye-opening look at a fringe industry and the lives of the talented performers who thrive within it ends up being a by-the-numbers melodrama, despite a sterling cast.
Yaron Zilberman, a documentarian making his feature film debut, has adapted Quartet with Seth Grossman, from his own short story, and though it only focuses on its four titular string players, there are reversals and revelations to spare. Gorgeously shooting a snow-covered upper Manhattan as though it were a travel video, Zilberman looks at what happens when widowed cellist Peter Mitchell (Christopher Walken) is diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, a debilitating illness sad for anyone but particularly devastating for those whose careers and passions lie in the nimble work of one’s hands (Frederick Elmes was director of photography).
Quartet would cover the winter of everyone’s discontent, however. This movie is not about Peter’s journey but the deleterious effect his diagnosis has on the rest of the Fugue Quartet, an elite group whose other members are younger than Peter and are firmly in the process of creating their own mid-life dramas: Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a second chair violinist, decides that when Peter leaves the group, he should ascend, at least partially to, first chair, alternating with Daniel (Mark Ivanir). This irks Daniel, who complains to viola player Juliette (Catherine Keener, working opposite Hoffman for the third time in eight years), since Juliette is Robert’s wife.
The web gets more incestuously tangled as Juliette and Robert’s daughter, Alexandra (Imogen Poots), seduces Daniel. Latent resentment among all four of these characters rise as Peter quietly adjusts to his fate in the film’s background. These formulaic plots, with plenty of backstory force-fed to the viewer via faux-documentary clips and a deluge of expository dialogue, undercut Zilberman’s commentary on the (waning) art of classical music and the need for a quartet to become an unbreakable family, simpatico with one another so as to make the sum of the four instruments a greater whole (Zilberman provides Walken with several monologues delivered to a music class that includes Alexandra about the intricacies of solo performance versus quartet performance to drive home the point.)
Structurally, the filmmaker aims to shape his movie a la Beethoven’s Quartet in C sharp minor (Op. 131), a famous 40-minute string quartet with seven movements that are to be played with no pause, performed by the Brentano String Quartet as the cast pantomimes the playing. But Quartet proves to be repetitive and clunky, thanks to its soapy sidebar plots. Hoffman is sensational when it comes to fleshing out his flawed violinist, though Keener and Ivanir don’t overcome Zilberman’s booby-trapped plot quite as well; Poots fares worse, with stilted line readings and no way of bridging her character’s oddly juvenile motivations.
Walken proves to be the quartet’s key player, on stage and in the film. In addition to subtly portraying the weakening abuse of Parkinson’s, he also steers his portions of the movie away from pathos. Grossman and Zilberman arm him with a particularly moving monologue that’s as classy a “thank you and goodbye” as your likely to hear. When he’s onscreen, Quartet is actually uplifting. It’s when the film’s other characters show up and start careening into each other that the movie starts hitting off notes.