A Late Quartet (Movie) written by Yaron Zilberman and Seth Grossman;
directed by Yaron Zilberman; starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christopher Walken, Catherine Keener, Mark Ivanir, Imogen Poots;
with Madhur Jaffrey, Liraz Charhi, Wallace Shawn, Anne Sophie von Otter
You’ve got some of today’s best screen actors as famous musicians
who are working on Beethoven’s Quartet, Opus 131, one of the supreme achievements of Western culture.
How could this movie not be good?
The script, that’s how.
Not that it starts off too badly. The cellist (Christopher Walken), the senior
member of the quartet, finds that he has Parkinson’s Disease. He’s going to have to retire. That throws the rest
of the quartet members into a tizzy. And here’s where the problems with the movie begin. The things that come up are
banal and melodramatic.
Especially in the case of the second violinist, Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
He decides that, since they’re going to be looking for a new cellist, he wants to shake things up even further: he’d
like to alternate with the first violinist, Daniel (Mark Ivanir), taking turns in that role. Apparently Robert has been seething
all these years with resentment. He thinks he’d make as good a first violinist as Daniel. Robert’s furious when
his wife, Juliette (Catherine Keener), the violist in the quartet, won’t say unambiguously that he should be first violinist.
This crisis doesn’t ring true for me. There are hundreds of excellent
musicians who have spent their entire careers quite happily as second violinists. I’m willing to grant that a few of
them might prefer to have the first violinist’s role. But the script doesn’t make it the least bit believable
that the Hoffman character would be one of them, that he would suddenly, after twenty-five years, dredge up this beef. As
presented in this movie, the situation seems like nothing but a facile riff on the old slur about somebody playing “second
Other resentments that surface aren’t any more credible. Robert and Juliette
have a daughter in her twenties. Alexandra (Imogen Poots) is a talented up-and-coming violinist who’s heading for a
life as a professional musician. But now, as the shit starts to hit the fan, she decides to vent her anger about the fact
that her mom’s career as a violist took her away from Alexandra as a kid. And this girl is herself looking to a career???
Those are just some of the klunkers that subvert the movie’s lofty intentions.
At the beginning and the end of the movie, we see the quartet members on stage, elegant in their performing attire. You almost
think the movie is trying to tell you: hey, these distinguished artists actually have pretty messy private lives, you know!
It might be possible to make a good movie along these lines if the filmmakers in question had the artistic smarts to dig deep
into the characters and come up with some genuine insight. Failing any such help from a script, the actors do their best with
this material but it’s not easy to rise above lines like “Omigod, I can’t believe this is happening,”
and “I made a mistake.” Somebody at one point says that the quartet has played 7,000 concerts in twenty-five years.
I’m embarrassed to admit how long it took me to do the math on that one. Long enough, let’s say, to miss several
more pages of blah-blah-blah.
In respects other than the dialogue, the style of the film-making can only
be described as earnest but plodding. When sexual hanky–panky’s in the offing, you can see it coming ten pages
beforehand. (And, by the way, don’t ever try to get away with anything when that Juliette character’s around;
the woman has the most uncanny knack for discovering incriminating evidence.) At one point, the movie tries to build great
drama into the appearance of someone unexpected at Alexandra’s door, but you know the caller’s identity long before
the camera finally shows the person. At another big “reveal” about a secret that’s supposed to be chilling,
the moment was so clumsily broached that the audience laughed.
But I had the feeling that, at the Sunday matinee I attended, the good-sized
audience – elderly and European, for the most part – was basking in the gratifying feeling of watching something
very “cultured” and non-Hollywood. Admittedly, the movie does look good, almost Bergman-esque. The scenes are
photographed in a painterly way. The clutter inside Alexandra’s apartment is so artfully arranged that I kept noticing
lovely still life painting opportunities. Central Park in NYC looks good in snow and winter sunshine. We visit brownstones
with gorgeous wood-panelled interiors. There’s even a trip to an art gallery for loving homage to a Rembrandt self-portrait.
The American cultural luminary, Wallace Shawn, makes a cameo appearance to add a touch of class. And we get about thirty seconds of lieder from the esteemed Swedish
soprano Anne Sophie von Otter.
Some of the other audio elements aren’t so felicitous, however. Seeming
to guess that the dialogue probably isn't enough to stir our emotions, the filmmakers have forced on us -- at almost every point when the quartet isn’t practising -- an intravenous drip of schmaltzy music. In most movies, that would hardly be objectionable
but, in this case, it makes a nauseating juxtaposition with the Beethoven.
Among the actors,
someone who makes a surprisingly favourable impression is Madhur Jaffrey in the cameo role of the doctor who first diagnoses
the Walken character’s disease. An older woman, with dark hair and eyes, handsome, well-groomed, she looks middle-Eastern.
(Turns out she’s from India.) There’s something about her – a warmth, a thoughtfulness, a calm – that
startles you into thinking: here’s a real person on screen. Unfortunately, Catherine Keener has no chance
to show any of the off-beat charm and humour that have made her such a welcome presence in most of her movies. Mark Ivanir,
in the role of Peter, is supposed to be a controlling, anal pill. He is. Imogen Poots pouts prettily but it’s not her
fault that she can’t make sense of the Alexandra character. Christopher Walken, as the one who is withdrawing from the
quartet, has the advantage of stepping back from the fray. There’s a certain fragile and tremulous dignity about him
as he starts measuring his medications and learning to deal with his condition. As a teacher of music students in some college
or university, he has a fine scene where he tells a story about an experience with Pablo Casals. It’s hard to
tell whether or not the story is true, but you wish it was.
As usual, Philip Seymour Hoffman is a phenomenon. He’s particularly outstanding
in a scene that I’ll identify simply – in order not to give away too much – as the prelude to a violin auction
at Sotheby’s. In his screen career to date, Mr. Hoffman has demonstrated the most uncanny knack of convincing you of
the truth and sincerity in a wide variety of characters. I’m reminded of the saying that being a good actor means being
a good liar. (I seem to remember that Marlon Brando said something like that in a Dick Cavett interview.) Mr. Hoffman can
take any lines, written by anybody, and make you think that they are coming spontaneously from his own heart. I’d hate
to think what it would be like to be involved with an actor like this in any personal way. You’d never know whether
or not the things he professed with such conviction were any true indication of what he was feeling or thinking.
That’s 280 concerts a year, by the way.
Capsule Comment (instead of a rating): Soap opera dressed up as high culture.