Review: A Late Quartet

“The truth is, everyone is going to hurt you. You just got to find the ones worth suffering for.” Thus spoke Bob Marley on the subject of friendship, words which recurred over and over in my mind when watching A Late Quartet, the first feature-length film by Yaron Zilberman. It tells the story, not so much of a quartet, but of four very good, long-standing friends. The film is an ensemble piece and a melodrama about friendship and the dynamics of relationships.

Christopher Walken plays Peter, a great cellist and the oldest member of the quartet, who has recently lost his wife. He decides that he needs to retire after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s. It is a monumental moment for him, to realise that the passion for music and its performance that he has nurtured and which has sustained him throughout his life will soon slip through his fingers. His playing is deteriorating in quality and he can hear it. For what he thinks to be the good of the quartet and to maintain the spirit of his fellows he decides to take a bullet, so to speak. However, far from leading them to the road of renewed success, this places them in jeopardy, serving as the catalyst for many little tensions that have been repressed by each in their long-standing friendship to now rise to the surface.

The other members of the group are married couple Robert and Juliette (played magnificently by Philip Seymour Hoffmann and Catherine Keener) and Daniel (Mark Ivanir), a brilliant and obsessive violinist who starts coaching Robert and Juliette’s daughter Alex when she expresses her ambition to become a 1st violinist, like Daniel.

The acting all round is of an exceptional quality, and Imogen Poots, as Alex, is a revelation in a powerful supporting role. The cinematography is clean and crisp, capturing the cold beauty of wintry New York with picture postcard perfection. It is primarily the acting however that raises this film above the sentimental slush it could have turned into, and there are some remarkable moments delivered by Walken, Hoffmann and Poots that are to be savoured.

That said, there is simply too much going on. The complexity of the relationships and how they develop cannot and should not be revealed here but that is not to say that the film breathes any originality into an already saturated genre. A Late Quartet is a film of two halves; certain sections are stunning, beautifully written, acted and very poignant. Then there is the other half, containing the discordant false notes and the soapy and predictable contrivances.

This is a film that is at its best in its quieter moments, moments where the dialogue has a movingly authentic ring, when we believe that these people really have been together for twenty years and nurtured both a profound love and respect for each other, as well as subdued, hitherto voiceless wounds. Its finest scene takes place in an art gallery, one of the quietest moments in the entire movie, shared by Christopher Walken and Catherine Keener. What makes it so moving is the understatement and profound understanding that the audience can sense effortlessly between the two characters, without the dialogue having to emphasize it. In contrast, when the tension between the members of the quartet explodes, it does so in too many directions and were it not for the performances keeping the film tightly on track, A Late Quartet would not be nearly as worthwhile or moving a viewing experience.

 15 Certificate

Review by LiveWire Young Film Critic, James Martin (April ’13)