There are a whole lot of strings threading through Yaron Zilberman’s soapy and melodramatic A Late Quartet, and only a few of them are attached to the violins and cellos that are so much a part of the story. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Christopher Walker, and Mark Ivanir are a formidable foursome in any situation, and their individual performances are stellar, but it’s Walken’s tender and heartfelt turn as a world renown cellist afflicted with Parkinson’s Disease that may be one of the finest of the year.
We’re so used to seeing the strong, crazy Walken that to see him so vulnerable is terribly affecting. He plays Peter, whose diagnosis couldn’t come at a worse possible time. The Fugue Quartet, made up of cellist Peter, 1st violin Daniel(Ivanir), 2nd violin Robert(Hoffman), and viola Juliette(Keener, is on the verge of their anniversary 25th season together, but they’ve been a part of each other’s lives for even longer. More than just a group of musicians but closer to family, Peter’s desire to make their next performance his farewell crushes them on both a professional and personal level.
Much of the story follows the members of the group as they begin to process where their lives are to go next, with each taking Peter’s departure to mean something totally different. Robert sees it as an opportunity for change, desiring to alternate the 1st cello slot with Daniel, who steadfastly refuses. Robert and Juliette, who have been married for as long as the group has been together, have hit a rough patch, but are trying to keep it together for the sake of their musically gifted daughter, Isabella(Imogen Poots). He’s been considering an adulterous affair with a sexy and much younger dancer, while Juliette is distant and untouchable. Meanwhile, the perfectionist Daniel has begun instructing Isabella, and his mentorship stokes fires of passion between them. Clearly, the quartet is in trouble whether Peter returns or not, as any one of these issues could be seen as an emotional betrayal, a risk to the future of the group and therefore unforgivable.
Zilberman does a good job of giving each of these great actors equal time to shine, and each has at least one or two incredible, emotionally resonant scenes. Hoffman and Keener are especially good when together, in particular during one gut wrenching moment in which he sets aside all of his arrogance and wonders openly if she ever truly loved him, or if it was all just a matter of convenience. Poots brings a youthful energy that the film desperately needs, and she more than holds her own opposite such acting heavyweights. Zilberman overplays more than a few of the most crucial moments, and then wrongly misreads some others. In particular the relationship between Isabella and Daniel turns downright silly. A heated exchange between mother and daughter would have been more effective with a bit more context that we are never provided.
But it’s Walken who shows a surprisingly tender side in the most interesting subplot of all, as we watch Peter cope with the recent loss of his wife and the impending loss of his God-given talent to disease. As thoughts of suicide begin to creep in, he instead turns his anguish around in order to try and keep his family in one piece. He unfortunately gets lost in the shuffle a little bit as Zilberman overstuffs the film with one too many subplots that don’t quite measure up, but it’s not an exaggeration to say that Walken has never been this good. In a career as long and varied as his, it’s amazing that he can still find ways to surprise us and even bring us to tears. Bravo!