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Non-Review Review: A Late Quartet

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2013.

Watching A Late Quartet, you can almost read the text the text of the “for your consideration” letters, advertisements and press releases. This is, after all, the story of a classical music quartet dealing with the fallout when their cellist discovers that he is suffering from Parkinson’s disease. The cellist’s announcement that he will be departing the group causes each of the other three members to question their role in the ensemble, and even where their lives have brought them. It is, very much, an invitation for melodrama, and the script takes up that invitation with considerable enthusiasm. However, despite (or perhaps because of) the script’s decision to embrace that melodrama, A Late Quartet serves as a fascinating showcase for a rather wonderful ensemble.

Music, sweet music...

Music, sweet music…

The character archetypes and arcs are relatively simple here – it’s easy enough to get a read on each of the characters and the role that they play within the group. The script rather clumsily attempts to tie that back to the role they play within the quartet itself. Robert, the second violinist, is tired of playing second-fiddle, and wants a chance at the spotlight. Daniel, the first violinist, is a bit of a prima donna and is driven by the survival of the quartet – possibly as an extension of his own ego. Juliette, playing the viola, tries to hold the group together, complicated by her marriage to Robert and Daniel’s relationship with her daughter.

The script occasionally hammers the overlap between the group dynamic and the roles within the quartet a little bit too hard. It stresses the notion that the frustrations of three musicians are rooted in the part that they play in making the music. It’s not a bad idea, it’s just that script is quite heavy-handed with it. It’s a solid metaphor, but the film leans a little bit heavily on it – to the point where it really seems like these characters have little life outside the music that they play. Of course, considering the devotion that art like this demands, it’s not unreasonable.

Work hard, play hard...

Work hard, play hard…

And this simplicity works to the movie’s advantage. Once he has announced his intention to retire, Peter the cellist fades to the background to watch the group he loves tear themselves apart. Each of the three other members carry their own story well. The decision to anchor these character arcs in relatively simple terms makes the movie a bit easier to follow, and it also gives the cast a bit of room to breathe and to develop their characters a bit.

A lot of the success of A Late Quartet stems from the cast. It’s very rare to see Christopher Walken as a solid dramatic performer these days. The actor has taken on the persona of an eccentric character actor, but his performance as Peter Mitchell is surprisingly – and movingly – understated. Peter doesn’t seem as weird or eccentric as Walken’s usual roles, and it’s a joy to see the actor demonstrating that he doesn’t just specialise in quirky supporting characters.

Four of a kind...

Four of a kind…

It is a shame that Peter almost fades into the background as the plot follows his three companions through their crisis of faith in the quartet and each other. Peter is relegated to the sidelines once he instigates this dilemma. However, Walken gives the character a wonderful nuance. There’s an absolutely beautiful scene where Peter expresses his frustration with the way that the group dynamic has twisted his attempt at a graceful retirement into an excuse to air long-held grudges and to risk shattering the beautiful harmony that existed. And, besides, any movie that puts Christopher Walken and Wallace Shawn in a scene together is worth at least one watch.

The rest of the cast do great work in roles that are perhaps a little too predictable and a little too trite. Catherine Keener plays Juliette as the same sort of role she’s been playing on-and-off for quite some time, the reliable and consistent (and loving) wife who finds the foundations of her world eroded out by those careless people around her. It’s hardly a major departure to Keener. It’s a role she slips into with a practised ease, but there’s a reason that Keener has become so associated with these sorts of parts. She’s very effective.

Getting played well...

Getting played well…

Similarly, Philip Seymour Hoffman isn’t pushing too far outside his comfort zone with the role of Robert, but there’s nothing wrong with playing to an actor’s strength. A Late Quartet works largely because it has drawn such a skilled ensemble to carry a rather simple premise with considerable craft and skill. The film does an excellent job demonstrating that none of the characters really exists outside the quartet. Their social circle is rather insular, and it seems that they are always watching recorded documentaries about themselves or listening to recordings of their concerts.

Under other circumstances, this might seem indulgent, or undermine these characters by presenting them as shallow or self-obsessed. Like the script’s preference for overblown melodrama, the cast do a lot of the hard work, taking advantage of the space afforded by the script. While Hoffman, Keener and Walken to the bulk of the heavy-lifting, supporting actors like Mark Ivanir and Imogen Poots also do a good job giving the drama a sense of energy and life.

Striking a chord...

Striking a chord…

A Late Quartet is really exactly the movie that it sets out to be. There aren’t too many shocks or turns. It’s quite clear where the film is going from moment that the characters are established, and it holds relatively few surprises. However, perhaps like the classic music the quartet plays, the charm isn’t in how familiar or how novel the piece might be. Perhaps it is simply the skill with which it is played.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3

One Response

  1. Excellent review of “A Late Quartet.”

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