"A Late Quartet" (Movie Review)
One wouldn’t think that personal drama could penetrate the structured and disciplined lives of professional string musicians. Maybe it’s going to work in evening clothes that create the perception. Director Yarin Zilberman’s "A Late Quartet" dispels the myth. Mr. Zilberman and his co-writer Seth Grossman have written a rich complex story that comes across as a simple tale of what happens to the lives of professional musicians when the coherence of their group is threatened. They have written characters that all actors dream of and Mr. Zilberman has cast his film with some wily veterans.
Mr. Zilberman opens his film with the quartet at concert in black tie and evening dress- a picture of professionalism. The dominos begin to fall when their cellist and senior member Peter Mitchell (Christopher Walken) is diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and announces his retirement. The second violinist, Robert Gelbart (Philip Seymour Hoffman) sees a chance at sharing the duties of the first violinist after twenty-five years. The first violinist, Daniel Lerner (Mark Ivanir), and the violist, Juliette Gelbart (Catherine Keener) are conformists. Daniel, with an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, is not keen on his rituals being disrupted and Juliette is so comfortable within the cocoon of the group that she fails to see why Peter has to retire.
"A Late Quartet" is a character study. The plot revolves around whether or not the group should find a replacement for Peter. But what makes the film enjoyable is watching these actors create characters who have a hard time dealing with the sudden disruption of their routines. The performances are subtle but textured. You can feel Mr. Zilberman holding the reins on his actors with a firm grip. Mr. Walken sets the tone. Mr. Walken, so often cast for his outrageousness, plays Peter with quiet elegance. The performance is subtle but also emotionally resounding. Mr. Walken does nothing when Peter is told he might have Parkinson’s yet we see his world collapsing. There is no over reaching but the denial is clear while attending a support group as is his relentlessness at keeping the group he founded going- brushing aside suicidal feelings as well as old friendships that might get in the way of retaining a well renowned cellist.
The violin is Daniel’s singular obsession. He knows the biographies of the composers he plays and tries to understand why they composed their works. He inscribes directions for the group on his sheet music and refuses to play without it even though they’ve played the same piece for twenty-five years. He even travels to the country for horse hair so he can make his own bows. Mr. Ivanir is a weighty presence on film. He lends Daniel a seriousness while making him as emotionally engaging as a piece of granite. Juliette’s dedication to music has kept her from being a full participant in motherhood and marriage. Scared or just not willing to take on the responsibilities the shake-up forces her to face her failures. Ms. Keener is wonderful as the strong and focused Juliette. She’s just as convincing when Juliette goes into a fog when confronted with the effects her neglect has on those around her. Mr. Hoffman’s Robert is likeable but passive. Unlike Daniel he is open to a performance-to-performance interpretation of the music. When he recommends they play without sheet music relying only on intuition he is rejected. He has put his own ambitions on the shelf for the sake of the group but his confidence in his playing- even Daniel admits that his playing is better when Robert backs him up- gives him the courage to ask for a new role when the opportunity opens up. His sense of betrayal when Juliette won’t back him leads to a night of adultery and a break down in their marriage.
Alexandra (Imogen Poots) is Robert and Juliette’s daughter. Ms. Poots gives a raw performance of a young woman who has left childhood behind but has yet to reach adulthood. Daniel is Alexandra’s private violin instructor and his complete dedication to the instrument they both love is a major allure. She follows her feelings and initiates an affair. She soon realizes that Daniel’s emotional tank is empty. He plays the violin with technical precision but forgets that emotion is what makes the music great. The same can be said about his relationships. Alexandra learns this and Daniel does not. She collects a piece of experience and ends the affair. She is also a tool in the screenplay showing the consequence of unrelenting dedication. Her mother wants to treat her as a daughter but Alexandra feels she’s lost that right after being absent for most her life giving performances.
Mr. Zilberman tells his story among some of the artistic landmarks of New York City- the reservoir at Central Park, The Frick museum and The Time Warner building. It’s a nice touch to watch musical artists grapple with crisis surrounded by artistic monuments. He also knows he has a strong screenplay so all he has to do is point the camera toward his actors and watch them bring it to life. There is no melodrama or outrageous brouhahas (except for one scene where the impact jumps out among the subtly), only intellectual people having to confront their mistakes like, well, intellectual people. He ends his film the same way he began it with the group in concert. But this time there is a disruption- just as in their lives- and we learn that the group will go on. They will go on perhaps better then they were before- better as musicians and better as people.