'A Late Quartet' struggles to hit the right notes
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
In theory, it should be pleasant and perhaps even edifying to watch a movie that acknowledges the existence of classical music and its world. In practice, to name two relatively recent meretricious-to-poor examples, "Shine" and "Hillary and Jackie." "A Late Quartet," the fictional feature debut of director Yaron Zilberman (who co-wrote with Seth Grossman), is not meretricious and, unlike the aforementioned movies, it actually takes classical music seriously for its own sake rather than treating it as something that needs to be indulged for the sake of telling a story about a musician or two.
It also has the benefit of featuring an unusually fine ensemble cast. Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, and Mark Ivanir play the members of the Fugue Quartet, a well-renowned outfit that specializes in the late quartets of Beethoven. The movie opens with first violinist Daniel, played by Ivanir, looking at a score of Quartet Opus 131, replete with markings, and starting to practice. Then we hear Walken's voice; his cellist Peter is also a music teacher, and he's describing the particular demands of the piece in question; good old Ludwig Van specified that the entirety be played without a break, which invariable, Peter notes, causes the instruments to go out of tune; "It's a mess," he observes. At quartet rehearsal, second violinist Robert, played by Hoffman, makes the daring suggestion that they finally go on a limb and play by heart. Daniel, the one with the marked-up score, balks. As does violist Juliette, played by Catherine Keener. Interestingly enough, she's Peter's wife.
You may be beginning to see the problem here. "A Late Quartet" introduces its themes in much the same way as a piece of music does. The playing-from-the-page versus playing-by (or is it "from"?)-heart debate is momentarily tabled when Walken's character tells the group that he's showing the early stages of Parkinson's disease, but you can bet that it's gonna come back. A scene soon after has Hoffman's character making snuggly advances on wife Keener; she turns away and tells him she's "not in the mood." Next morning Robert is out for a jog with incredibly foxy young Pilar (Liraz Chari) who does some relatively outrageous pre-run stretches while asking Robert "Don't you have the urge to play the solo part once in a while?" Hmmm, wonder where that's going? (Turns out Pilar is a flamenco dancer, too!) When cold Daniel deigns to give the promising violinist daughter of Robert and Juliette (Imogen Poots) some private coaching, and she seems provoked in a not-turned-off way by his pompous pedantry, well, heck, again no one has to draw you a map.
It's almost funny at times: when Hoffman's character upbraids Ivanir for the sterility of his playing and implores him 'Unleash your passion!" I very nearly said to the screen, "Don't tell him that, dude, he's gonna have sex with your daughter." On the other hand, the movie's handful of attempts at comic relief, as when Ivanir has to make an escape from Poots' apartment because of a visit from Keener, strike one as half-hearted attempts to demonstrate a state contrary to humorlessness.
I'm coming down a little hard on a well-intentioned and in many respects well-made (and in all respects very well-acted) movie here, I know. But the moments of it that are really good, and feel the truest, as in a scene in which Hoffman's character confronts Keener's on what he sees as the middling level of commitment she has to their marriage, are very striking in their particularity, and they make the more obvious and pat stuff stand out in stark, frustrating relief. The movie doesn't resolve on a sour note, but it takes the viewer along a too-familiar set of tones.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.