Film review: ‘A Late Quartet’ offers intimate look at musicians and their relationships

November 12, 2012

I love musicians. Many of my friends are musicians. I was once a student of music, and I have spent a couple of decades interviewing musicians. Musicians are a certain breed of personality. Their preferred form of communication is music. It’s how they “talk” to their public as well as one another. So when something disrupts that communication, be it life-altering illness, infidelities, the care of their children or anything else in life, guess where the priority remains?

A Late Quartet captures the tension between life and music for the members of a quartet who are going on playing together for nearly 25 years to global acclaim. The quartet’s signature piece, Beethoven’s Opus 131 is not incidental. Early in the film cellist Peter Mitchell (Christopher Walken) introduces the piece to his class of students with the opening lines of TS Eliot’s poem “Burnt Norton.” A highlight being the other-dimensional opening lines Eliot was so great at composing: “Time present and time past are both present in time future.” Peter also emphasizes the complexity of the piece and how it contains not a single pause. Indeed, a lack of pause and consideration for others in life is the fault of the very quartet that plays the piece. They spend more energy trying to continue to play together, despite Peter’s Parkinson’s diagnosis, and the failing marriage between second violin player Robert Gelbart (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and viola player Juliette Gelbart (Catherine Keener), who still has feelings for first violin player Daniel Lerner (Mark Ivanir) than tending to their issues. And that does not cover half the quartet’s problems. A sexy Flamenco dancer (Liraz Charhi) offers Robert more moral support for his ambitions that his own wife. The Gelberts’ daughter, Alexandra (Imogen Poots) is following in her parents’ footsteps as a talented violinist, but she is also the embodiment of childhood neglect to her parents’ career. “You think I had fun … taking a back seat to a violin and a viola?” she yells at her mother when tensions truly begin to spill over toward the end of the movie.

At one point, Peter reminds Daniel of their motto, “What happened to, ‘No compromise. Quality above all’?” Well it may have made them the successful musicians they are now, but at what price to their own humanity? The film explores that with a tragic sort of delight, as the musicians’ worlds seem to dissolve around them on the eve of the quartet’s 25th anniversary. This is not a condemnation the artists’ dedication, but emphasizes the complexity of an artistic life, and why no one, no matter where the devotion lie, should ever forget the impact it has around those nearest and dearest to them. The most special artist is the one who can still raise a happy family and succeed in his or her career. Those stories are even fewer than that of this fictional, world-famous quartet. Even Sonic Youth’s  Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon, who married in 1984, and kept their band afloat for nearly 30 years recently divorced. Though David Bowie raised a happy, creative film director as a single father, he quietly retired from music to play a father to his daughter with his second wife of nearly 20 years, Iman. Even to legends like Sonic Youth and Bowie, something must be compromised.

The drama of A Late Quartet is a subtle thing to grasp, and though the acting is superb— as can be expected with a cast led by Walken, Hoffman and Keener— the film takes some time to grab the viewer’s attention. The characters’ privileged Manhattan living in the upper echelon of the classical music world might be hard to relate with for some. When things start falling apart and Robert wonders aloud whether Peter’s Parkinson’s will finally give him a chance to play first violin, one wonders if these selfish people deserve pity or spite. Though it takes awhile, pathos does arrive in no small part to the heart the actors have invested in presenting their portraits of these artists on the verge of self-destruction. There’s a beautiful moment of music and personality construction when Peter is once again with his class demonstrating how he once played for Pablo Casals. The tension of his diagnosis weighs heavy in the air as the drama of his anecdote unfolds, and he demonstrates on his cello.

The directing by Yaron Zilberman is rudimentary and works for the service of the drama in the script written by Zilberman and Seth Grossman as well as the relationships among these characters. The details some might nitpick are too small to fuss over. But the film works as a tense character portrait of the complexities and faults of the musician’s personality. The actors dive in extraordinarily. When Robert walks out on stage at the start of the film, Hoffman exhibits a graceless waddle as he grips his instrument’s neck, capturing the irony of the musician’s lack of grace in contrast to his enchanting playing, a physical manifestation of his clumsiness in life versus that in his music. Walken is also superb, capturing the tension in his diagnosis and his desire to not just play his cello, but play it with the justice the piece requires.

I acknowledge that I often go into spoilers in my reviews with little warning, but if it helps in the pleasure of enjoying a good movie, I’d rather have some extra insight to offer for the viewer’s pleasure. But, without going into to much detail, I know some might feel let down by the film’s ending, which seems too neat a compromise for these characters. However, keep in mind that these are musicians. It makes sense that they should seem to make amends on stage. The music transcends their need for earthly reconciliation as illustrated by the actions leading up to the performance. Who knows how much longer it will last after they step off stage, and the film’s end credits have rolled on? But that’s a testament to the detail both the director, writer and actors have infused into this film with, as its pleasure lies in understanding the distinct differences in this human world of interacting through music versus the daily grind of living one’s life.

Hans Morgenstern

A Late Quartet is Rated R (language and sex) and runs 105 minutes. It opened this Friday in the Miami are at the following theaters: the AMC Aventura Mall 24 in Aventura, the AMC Sunset Place 24 and Miami’s Tower Theater. It opens in several other venues in West Palm Beach this coming Friday. To see where it is playing or going to play in your part of the states, visit the film’s homepage above and enter your zip code.
(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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