A Late Quartet caught my attention primarily because of the cast. Christopher Walken plays Peter, the cellist in a string quartet who’s just been diagnosed with Parkinson’s and as a result has decided this will be his final year with the group and would like to make the first show of the season his last. Joined by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Mark Ivanir and Catherine Keener we’re talking about a strong set of leads. To my disappointment, the film rarely explores the world the musicians inhabit and instead focuses on the mundane, soapy elements of their lives as their circle begins to close in on them upon Peter’s announcement. There is a little good to be found in the performances, but overall it’s a pretty bland piece of cinema.
At the outset we’re given the impression this is actually going to be a film about music, a love for music and the assembly of a group of musicians who must learn to adapt their sounds to one another to come together in perfect harmony. Peter’s announcement lands like a bombshell, but Robert (Hoffman) sees it as a chance to request he no longer play second violin in every concert and rotate the position with Daniel (Ivanir), whose played first violin since the group began 25 years ago.
This riff is the first of many as the quartet looks as if it may not be able to survive. But as much as the film seems to think it’s about music, with Peter’s interpretation of Beethoven’s Opus 131 serving as the film’s thematic backbone, it soon devolves into petty bickering and cliched plot points. Of course, the film could have just as easily focused on Peter’s disease and been just as cliche, but as I told someone as we walked out of the theater, “They traded one cliche for a collection of worse ones.”
Even when the narrative attempts to buck the system by having Alexandra (Imogen Poots), the daughter of Robert and Julie (Keener), make the more adult decision at one point, her involvement is an added plot point that was entirely unnecessary and ultimately added nothing.
Peter’s interpretation of Beethoven’s Opus 131 is heard in the film’s trailer and it speaks of a search for cohesion and the need to adapt as things get tough and go out of tune. It’s a strong metaphor, but is one that is unfortunately forgotten as soon as he says it. The film makes no attempt to meld the music and drama, rather more interested in melodramatic plot points to keep the emotional level at a sappy high.
The strongest member of the cast is Walken, who breaks free from playing himself as he’s come to do in recent years, and gives a strong performance when given the chance. Peter is seen in and out of the film, but is largely given the opportunity to play the bookends. He’s the babysitter to the little brats he’s been playing with all these years and just as he gets a bit weary things hit the skids.
As for Hoffman, Keener and Ivanir, they do what they can with mundane material as machismo, adultery and clandestine relationships takeover a film that had a chance to be far more interesting than just another soap opera disguised as a feature film.