Last night after my less than thrilling Silver Streak adventure, I decided to watch A Late Quartet. This is unusual for me. The film is barely a year old, and I find myself more and more trying to go back and pick up gems that I have missed from the past. But this film called to me, probably because the story centers on an established string quartet. That meant at least the music would be good. What’s more, it allows for all kinds of fun with theme and metaphor. And after Silver Streak, I needed something a little more, well, adult.
The four primary characters are about to start the 25th season as their world famous string quarter, The Fugue. The group formed with three students and one of their teachers, cellist Peter Mitchell, played by Christopher Walken. He is having trouble playing and soon finds out that he has Parkinson’s disease and so decides to retire. How exactly the quartet will proceed with a replacement for him is the critical question. And, of course, things get all screwed up. The second violin, Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and viola player, Juliette (Catherine Keener), are married with a grown daughter. But Juliette once was involved with the first violin, Daniel (Mark Ivanir). That doesn’t lead to the obvious conflict. The emotional core of the film is Robert and his feeling that he is second violin in both the quartet and his marriage.
Obviously, there is far more to the film. Each of the four parts are interrelated just as in a quartet. Or perhaps a quintet because the daughter (Imogen Poots) is very important. But she is mostly reflective of the others—almost a narrative device to show Juliette when she was that age without the dramatic noise of flashbacks or similar devices. Anyway, to get a good idea of the tone, look, and sound of the film, watch the trailer:
It is nice to see a film that at least tries to appeal to adults. But I’m not sure to what extent it succeeds. The film exists on two levels at once. Emotionally, all is right. I don’t know the extent to which this is owed to the actors, but I do think it is some of the best work that any of them have done. On another level, however, the plot is hackneyed melodrama. But maybe that’s brilliant, because in my experience, most people’s love lives are very much like hackneyed melodrama. I don’t know quite what to think about that. Ultimately, the plot doesn’t matter.
It also panders a bit. Again, this may be brilliant or at least not such a bad thing. But the primary theme of the film about the necessity of emotional adjustment and the health of relationships is made concrete through dialog twice. In general, I don’t like themes being forced upon me. I’m able to work out my own meaning. But those bits of dialog are some of the best in the film. The writers are at their best when they are being explicitly intellectual. It is hard not to join in their enthusiasm, but I’m left feeling locked into their way of viewing the film, and the evolution of thought is one of the fun things about the best films.
In the end, I don’t think A Late Quartet is a great film. It is, however, a great attempt to make a piece of art. In addition, it was satisfying in the way a well prepared meal is, regardless of the excesses or eccentricities of the cook. And that is a whole lot more than I normally get from a film.