The opening minutes of A Late Quartet find aging cellist Peter (Christopher Walken) reading a T.S. Eliot passage to a class, which underscores the different parts of a group adding up to a working whole. Yeah, it’s that kind of movie—which is not to say a musty vibe is an automatic demerit, or that there’s not something charming about a fussy chamber piece, particularly when the players are precise, seasoned professionals. As it happens, Walken’s character is in an esteemed string quartet with musicians played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener and grouchy Russian actor Mark Ivanir. As per the T.S. Eliot, each brings their own strengths, and together they can make beautiful a piece that would likely not work with a lesser ensemble.
The Eliot also (of course) serves as heavy foreshadowing, signifying that Walken’s string quartet will face a potential disbanding. Walken is quickly diagnosed with early Parkinson’s, and his looming retirement opens old scabs. Second violinist Robert (Hoffman) has long tired of his lowly status, and his insecurities are confirmed by the brutal honesty of his wife/violist Juliette (Keener). As their marriage crumbles, his daughter Alexandra (Imogen Poots) commences a stereotypical flirtation with the older, pissy first violinist Daniel (Ivanir).
All the dialogue has been carefully written and organized so as to spell everything out for the viewer, and when it breaks from faux-subtlety, the result is a shrill mother-daughter shoutfest. But the film’s artistic squareness is nicely reflected in the stiff, hushed milieu of its setting, with warm tones soothingly captured by former David Lynch cinematographer Frederick Elmes. And if director/cowriter Yaron Zilberman is a lumbering writer, he’s wise to hire then properly inspire his actors. At this point, all the once-spastic Walken has to do to hold the screen is next to nothing. He’s effortlessly moving as a man losing his faculties, but Hoffman and, in particular, Poots are thrilling. Their line readings are inspired improvisations that spin out in unpredictable patterns, even when Hoffman isn’t coldcocking the longtime colleague stupping his daughter. The microcosm is quiet classical, but the actors are like jazz.
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