“A Late Quartet” tells the tale of a quartet that has been playing together for 25 years. They’ve gotten to know each other quite well over all of those years with two of them even marrying. Their group is celebrated around the world, as evident by a very crowded concert schedule. They’ve all settled into their roles in the group, and nothing much ever changes, that is, until recently.
The group’s cellist, Peter (Christopher Walken), suddenly has difficulty playing during one of their regular practice sessions. A visit to a doctor brings the bad news that he is in the early stages of Parkinson’s. Naturally, this news devastates his fellow musicians, however, the second violinist, Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman), also sees it as a possible opportunity to change his role. If they would have to bring in a new cellist, giving them a new sound, then perhaps he could start alternating first violin with the group’s other violinist, Daniel (Mark Ivanir).
However, even with the news that there is medication that Peter can take to continue participating in the group (at least for a little longer), Robert is still stuck on this idea. His wife, Juliette (Catherine Keener), the group’s violist, even thinks it’s a bad idea, which leads to difficulty in their relationship. Meanwhile, Daniel is tutoring their daughter, Alexandra (Imogen Poots), an aspiring violinist. However, a relationship that starts off as a difficult one between student and pupil soon becomes something more.
“A Late Quartet” has the start of an interesting idea. Following a group of musicians through a difficult period could make for a very engaging film. However, this film has two major factors that prevent it from achieving that goal: an overdose of melodrama and storylines that don’t mesh, or even feel like they should be in the same movie.
From the synopsis alone, you would probably be able to point out these two elements, at least to some degree, but only after having seen the movie do you realize just how heavily laid on the melodrama is. For instance, let’s take the first storyline the film goes into, which is Peter developing Parkinson’s. Does this not sound like one of the most clichéd circumstances that could start to affect the group?
Then the strangest thing happens. This storyline is put on hold while other storylines come in to take its place, and yes, the melodrama goes on, but this time, it’s harder to buy into because of the feeling that it doesn’t belong in a movie about musicians. This storyline goes off on a tangent that has Robert sleeping with another woman because his wife thinks he isn’t good enough for first violin, but it’s less about his talent and more about his infidelity, giving it a somewhat awkward feeling.
Speaking of awkward, the film also throws in another subplot about Robert and Juliette’s daughter falling in love with Daniel. This comes completely out of nowhere and feels even more out of place than the subplot I mentioned previously. All these misplaced storylines end up doing is make you wonder how Peter is doing and whether he’ll ever be able to play the same again, but as I already mentioned, this storyline goes on hold while the others are explored.
There are some things to enjoy about “A Late Quartet,” mainly the performances from Walken and Hoffman, who, despite being stuck with extremely melodramatic material, do their best with what they have. There’s also the outstanding classical soundtrack which we hear during the intriguing rehearsal sessions as well as during the big performance of Beethoven’s Opus 131 String Quartet at the end of the film.
It becomes quite clear by the film’s conclusion that the best scenes in it are those that revolve around the music. There is one scene that simply has Walken telling a story to his class about how he once played for a famous cellist, while at the same time playing the same selections he played back then. There’s almost nothing happening in the scene at all, and yet it manages to be more compelling than all of the melodrama in the entire film. This merely proves that the filmmakers chose to focus on the wrong area. If they had put the focus in the right place, imagine what kind of film this could have been. 2/4 stars.
Starts tomorrow in limited release.
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