Certainly, if a film pulls together a cast that includes Philip Seymour Hoffmam, Christopher Walken and Catherine Keener, there’s going to be something worth enjoying. And indeed, the trio give top shelf performances as we’ve always come to expect from them in “A Late Quartet.” But it’s just too bad that they’re in service of Yaron Zilberman‘s film, which takes the unique focus of a string quartet in Manhattan, and puts it in the middle of a standard and unsatisfying soap opera, that spins off into one subplot too many.
As the film opens, cellist Peter (Walken) informs the rest of the group — first violinist Daniel (Mark Ivanir), second violinist Robert (Hoffman) and violist (and Robert’s wife) Juliette (Keener) — that he’s been diagnosed with Parkinson’s, and he’ll be exiting the quartet. It’s devastating news both personally and professionally. 30 years older than his peers, Peter taught Daniel who invited his teacher to join the group he was forming, and 3000 performances later, it has become a defining part of their lives. Forming the kind of close friendship and musical relationship that comes from years of playing together, Peter’s exit doesn’t just rupture the group, but finds the remaining members now forced to examine where their journey has taken them thus far, and where it will go from here.
For Robert and Juliette, it’s a chance to evaluate their marriage, which has slipped into an emotionally distant routine. Robert has started getting close to an attractive woman he’s been jogging with played by Liraz Charhi, while Juliette’s feelings for Daniel — whom she briefly dated before Robert — seem to be resurfacing. On top of that, with the search for a new cellist beginning, Robert wants to use the opportunity to try an alternate first and second chair with Daniel, who in turn is resistant to the idea, and seeks to maintain their musical direction the group has taken for decades, recruiting Juliette to back him up, adding to the rift between her and Robert. And oh yeah, there’s also Robert and Juliette’s daughter Alexandra (Imogen Poots), an aspiring classical musician herself, who begins to take personal instruction from Daniel.
So yes, it’s a lot of strings to thread through this narrative, but they are largely inert. The marital tiff between Robert and Juliette could be its own movie, but sharing space with the two or three other story strands that emerge, it’s boiled down to its most basic moving parts, with the depth of their twenty-five year marriage, and what’s really at stake, never getting its full due. And though Walken is seemingly introduced as the main character, his arc — again, a fascinating one as a successful musician and professor who has to cope with a disease that will find him losing his talents — is mostly left to bookend the movie. But most disappointing of all, the interesting world of classical music which all these characters orbit is never really felt, thus making the narratives feel like they ultimately could have been pulled from any Indie Drama 101.
But as we mentioned, it’s the performances that keep things engaging. Hoffman gets at least two incredible scenes including a bracing showdown with Juliette in which he questions if she even loves him, and another with Daniel in which he points out the weakness of the quartet leader’s quest for perfection. Walken too is enjoyablly subdued, with even his trademark cadence played down. But it’s Poots who once again reminds why she’s one of the most promising actresses going. She brings a true light and joy to the picture, with her carefree and somewhat insolent character a refreshing cleanser from the four more serious players around her. While her character goes to some unfortunately CW-type places, Poots navigates it admirably, delving into some nice dramatic territory in the later part of the picture. A great faceoff with Keener in particular proves Poots capable of standing alongside the best of them.
But those highlights aside, “A Late Quartet” is mostly a series of either predictable or sour (or both) notes. While it’s understandable why Zilberman would want to give equal weight to each member of the group, doing so diminishes each of their stories dramatically and emotionally, and that isn’t helped by the routine nature of how they unfold. And it should also be mentioned that as good as the acting is, none of the “playing” in the film ever looks real or believable. While Robert implores Daniel to “Unleash your passion,” it’s exactly that sentiment that’s missing from “A Late Quartet.” While some of the movments are compelling, the symphony as a whole never quite finds a melody. [C]