A Late Quartet is one of those films, which unfortunately should be a lot better than it actually is. On paper, it features one of the most talented and intriguing cast lists in recent cinema. Lead by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Christopher Walken, A Late Quartet, follows a classical musical quartet as they approach their 25th anniversary. As the film starts, we see Walken’s character, Peter Mitchell, diagnosed with the dreadful Parkinson’s disease, and therefore having to realise that soon, he will no longer be able to play music. This diagnosis, causes a cataclysm of events and consequences, which question the integrity and continuation of this quartet and in the larger picture, the nature of the relationships between those who work together, live together and love together.
Hoffman and Walken are joined by the beautiful Catherine Keener and the (slightly) out of place, Mark Ivanir to make up the rest of the group. Hoffman’s Robert Gelbart is married to Keener’s Juliette, and together they have a daughter, Alexandra, played by Imogen Poots (trying her hardest at an American accent, which simply grated).
All in all, A Late Quartet, is a family melodrama but family in the larger sense. Rather than flesh and blood, the quartet is the family and those around them are affected by what happens within. The film splits itself in two, focusing in part on Walken’s disease, how he works with it and how it will most certainly affect his musical future. The other part places an emphasis on Robert and Juliette, and the disintegration of their marriage. Although the couple have their issues from the very start of the film, which are clear in their feuds and the distance between them when no one else is around, things become worse when Robert has a one night stand and Juliette discovers the two of them together. Unfortunately, the film concentrates far more on their marital issues, rather than Peter’s storyline, and this was the biggest weakness of the film. There are many reasons why their storyline simply doesn’t work for myself – firstly, it didn’t intrigue me because it wasn’t unique, it seemed like any other marriage from a soap opera. As the audience aren’t given too much background on the marriage, and they are arguing from the start, we aren’t given a point of comparison where they are or once were happy, which makes it hard to think of other times when they could have been happy. Secondly, neither Hoffman nor Keener seem invested in their characters or the storyline, they both seem pretty bored and less than animated in their roles. Some may suggest they are downplaying many aspects of their characters, so that they don’t come across cartoony or melodramatic, but personally, if you set up a melodrama, I don’t mind some hyperbole in the characters, just to see some power behind them. But I suppose, my biggest issue with the focus on the marriage, was that I was far more interested in the moments when Walken was on screen.
Christopher Walken gives his most powerful and thrilling performance as a man devastated by what life has left him with. As I am so used to seeing Walken playing hard men, and over the top characters, it was so refreshing to see him playing a role, which was off an older man who is broken by the fragility of life. He is having to consider everything now and make changes to the way he works in his own reality. He speaks with those around him, his colleagues are all his family, and his family are all his children. He looks after them, and teaches them but what A Late Quartet, does so succinctly and beautifully is question what happens when everything is going to disappear. He plays the character of Peter is subtly, that you may not even notice the nuisances of his performance. One particular sequence, when Peter takes part in a class about how to deal with Parkinson’s, and to keep his body moving through special exercises, was especially heartbreaking as he is slowly starting to realise what his life will slowly come to and although he is surrounded by these amazing people who have dealt so well with their diagnosis, you are questioning whether he will soon be able to do the same.
As I mentioned earlier, there is a forth member to the quartet – Mark Ivanir plays Daniel Lerner. For the first half of the film, they simply hint at a potential affair between him and Juliette, or that something possibly happened a long time ago in the past. You think had they done something during the film, that the marital issues with Robert would have been much more interesting. She has been looking for a way out for a while, and she blames his one night stand, but what questions arise if she also cheats? Juliette recoils into loneliness on discovery of her husband’s infidelity and Daniel has to use his sexual prowess elsewhere. Ivanir is an Israeli, Russian born actor, and oddly, his exoticness (otherwise, foreignness) is quite self aware in A Late Quartet. He is sexual, and flirty with women around him but he is also the opposite to Robert, in that he doesn’t yearn for the attention, which he so easily receives. The largest, and somewhat most confusing twist in the tail, is when Daniel starts a sexual (and later emotional) relationship, with Alexandra – the daughter. Now, whilst I do enjoy the Freudian impulses of the film and reverse Oedipal questions of sexuality, with the young girl idolising the father figure (or the opposite older man in her life), I found this storyline somewhat needless in the great expanse of the film.
Poots appears quite underwhelmed throughout, especially acting opposite such great names like Hoffman and Walken. She seems to have very little chemistry with the male characters of the film, but one sequence in particular, does highlight what could have potentially been a wonderful coupling; and that is between herself and Catherine Keener. During an argument in Alexandra’s apartment, both mother and daughter are fully having it out. Sex, family, upbringing, all the cards are off the table and they are finally telling each other how they feel. What I felt was raw emotion, it was touching and real. Unfortunately, there aren’t many scenes with the two women, and even though I would have liked to have seen more – I truly the believe the power of this scene was due to it being one of few.
Obviously, the music was of a huge importance to the film with the most stunning score by Angelo Badalamenti. As soon as the saw his name on screen, I knew we were in good hands. The score compliments each of the scenes, and each of the emotions from the characters. It causes tensions and it relaxes the audience, and it becomes something so much more than a level of entertainment but actually becomes connotative to how the characters are feeling. Complimenting the soundtrack, are tracks by Beethoven and Bach to name a few, played throughout the film to give a sense of authenticity to the performances. What alienated myself, a music lover, from the film was the way that the music was chopped up throughout and there were very few moments we could sit back and enjoy. I felt, this was made for an audience with a short attention span unfortunately. When you have something by Beethoven, we should be able to just sit back and listen.
A Late Quartet causes me somewhat of a conundrum whilst writing, I want to love it, I want to admire what it does, what it says and how it looks but unfortunately, director, Yaron Zilberman, has set up a story with very little context or knowledge about the characters. So much happens, without giving me a reason to care. Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed Walken, his performance and his power, everything else about the film felt a little sour and lacked the provocative nature, it so clearly yearned for.
Follow me on Twitter – @olliecharles