A Late Quartet is certainly one of the sturdiest, unassuming films that I’ve seen in a while. Written and directed by Yaron Ziberman with a screenplay assist by Seth Grossman, the film is a straightforward drama with only modest ambitions. While unsurprising in its storytelling and aesthetics, A Late Quartet features superb acting and a deeply felt score by frequent David Lynch composer Angelo Badalamenti. Both qualities play heavily into the film’s success as a meditation on mortality, art and (more broadly) the compromises we all make in life.
As expected the film focuses on a famous string quartet based in Manhattan who have been playing together for over 25 years. The group is led by its oldest member, the venerable Peter Mitchell (a wonderfully subdued Christopher Walken). When Peter experiences early signs of the onset of Parkinson’s disease the other members of the quartet are thrown into an existential crisis. Old wounds are reopened and long simmering tensions begin to rise to the surface.
The other three members of the quartet are played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener and Mark Ivanir. What is quickly established by the writing of Ziberman and Grossman is the longevity of these people’s partnership. But, as in any long running association there are a number of different issues percolating just beneath the surface. Easily the most compelling of these three is the late Hoffman, whose performance dominates the film. He also however has the richest character to work with. His Robert Gelbert is married to Catherine Keener’s Julianne. He is also the quartet’s second chair violinist, yet harbors aspirations to move to first chair that emerge following the news of Peter’s intent to retire due to his sickness.
His character gets the film’s exploration of art’s relationship to identity up and running. He also precipitates its exploration of the compromises an individual is asked to make when becoming part of a group or institution. This idea manifests itself in several different forms and is acted out through the various characters’ relationships with one another. For instance, Hoffman and Keener’s characters soon find their marriage threatened, and begin grappling with whether or not their marriage has been one based on real love or simply convenience. Ivanir, whose religious adherence to musical perfection comes under fire from Hoffman (who claims his playing lacks passion), begins searching for something to emotionally invest himself in, a process which eventually strains the quartet further. Finally, there is Walken’s musical patriarch Peter, who finds himself torn between ensuring the continued strength of the quartet and also figuring out how to best take care of himself in this new stage of his life.
The film’s thoughtful and well-written characters unfortunately are caught up in a story that is not quite worthy of them. Much of what occurs in A Late Quartet is entirely expected, with the direction of Ziberman telegraphing the story’s twists and turns pretty blatantly. Additionally, not all of the actors come off quite as well as the members of the quartet. Imogen Poots (Is that a real name?) for example does not quite convince as Alexandria (the daughter of Hoffman’s and Keener’s characters). I’m not sure if this is due to any failing on her part, although I am almost positive I heard her American accent slip once or twice during the character’s more vociferous moments. In any case the main emotional aspects of Alexandria don’t really wash and seem tangential to the main themes of the story.
All of this aside A Late Quartet is an effective character study that is enormously watchable due to the combined talents of Hoffman, Walken, Keener and Ivanir. Despite the film not possessing much in the way of surprises it does still manage to draw out palpable emotions. This can be partially credited to the film’s appropriately string heavy score by Angelo Badalamenti, which fills scenes like the one of Walken at a Parkinson’s support group with a sense of tangible sadness. This aesthetic quality paired the affecting acting and Ziberman’s deft decision to largely eschew melodrama, makes the film work, and sometimes work beautifully. Because of the film’s reliance on its actors however, and because PSH has such a good role in the film, it is a sad movie to watch in the post-Hoffman era. It’s a reminder that even in small, modest films such as A Late Quartet, he cast a long and powerful shadow.