A Late Quartet screened after WW press deadlines, but critic Emily Jensen was there for the fizz and the soap.
Critic's Grade: B+
In the hermetically sealed world of chamber music, it’s all polished spruce and tightlipped grudges. If Jägermeister is the quintessential beverage of rock stars, then for a string quartet it must be a vigorously shaken bottle of champagne: refined, expensive and on the verge of exploding into an effervescent puddle of melodrama. In A Late Quartet
, we watch the pressurized contents of a world-renowned string quartet’s personal problems fizz over when they discover that their beloved cellist has been diagnosed with the early stages of Parkinson’s.
Christopher Walken, his hair coifed per usual in the style of a vampiric lesbian, takes on a decidedly unusual role as said cellist, a magnetic widower named Peter. When Peter fails to keep pace at the Fugue quartet’s first rehearsal of the season, it signals the onset of his career-ending ailment. A steady and practical man, Peter dutifully begins to search for his replacement, announcing that if he is still able to play by the season’s first performance, the show shall be his last.
In the wake of Peter’s devastating announcement, the remaining members of the quartet promptly nose-dive into emotional breakdowns, each with the watery-eyed brooding one might expect of people who play violins for a living. After 25 years and more than 3,000 performances together, the dynamics of their group are a tense, incestuous broth. Juliette (Catherine Keener), the violist, thinks of Peter as a father after spending her teen years in his and his late wife’s care. She is married to Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the second violinist, who secretly longs to overtake the role of first violinist Daniel (Mark Ivanir), a moody and pretentious virtuoso still fixated on a dalliance with Juliette prior to her marriage. As a favor to her and Robert, Daniel tutors their foxy twenty-something daughter Alexandra (Imogen Poots) in violin, and their interactions are predictably fraught with creepy sexual tension. It’s the drippy, succulent scandal of a soap opera set to the tune of Beethoven’s Opus 131, and with far superior acting (with the exception of Poots, whose performance is icy and affected). Walken is especially moving as Peter; his turn as a wise, loving and mentally stable musician comes as a surprise relative to his typically comedic and campy roles, but he pulls it off.
A Late Quartet can at times begin to feel like a droning catalogue of white people problems, with a handful of messy scenes that seem overly catastrophic for people who likely keep foie gras in the fridge and own an awful lot of cashmere. But for the most part, it is a lovely and painful look into the lives of classical musicians and a tribute to their passionate and complicated devotion to music and, more than anything, to each other.