Film Review: Highbrow 'A Late Quartet' makes unsubtle music

‘A Late Quartet’

Rated R for profanity and brief sexual content.

The fiery passion of Beethoven's final major compositions fails to heat up the tepid soap operatics of "A Late Quartet," a story about four classical musicians whose celebrated harmony is threatened by illness, jealousy and sexual monkeyshines.

The milieu is highbrow, but the movie isn't exactly subtle. In an early scene, the ensemble's wise, even saintly founder and paterfamilias, cellist Peter Mitchell (Christopher Walken), talks to his students about the difficulty that faces any string quartet when it attempts Beethoven's Opus 131, which is performed attacca, or without pause.

"Our instruments must go out of tune, each in its own quite different way," Mitchell explains. "What are we supposed to do — stop? Or struggle… continuously adjust to each other?" Director Yaron Zilberman, who co-wrote the script with Seth Grossman), might as well be whispering in our ear: See, he's talking about the music of life itself...

After that speech, it's no surprise that Mitchell's instrument goes out of tune: His suddenly unruly hands prove to be an early sign of Parkinson's disease. The bad news threatens the existence of Mitchell's famous Fugue Quartet, exposing and widening the emotional fissures that the musicians had pretended to ignore for most of the ensemble's 25-year history.

The quartet's second violinist is unfaithful Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman), frustrated by his supporting position and by the relative coldness of his wife, the ensemble's viola player, Juliette (Catherine Keener). The first violinist is the charismatic Daniel (Mark Ivanir), who begins an age-inappropriate affair with one of his violin pupils, Alexandra (Imogen Poots), who is Robert and Juliette's daughter. A scene in which Juliette almost catches her daughter in bed with Daniel is disharmoniously played for farce, complete with comic elbow-to-the-ribs musical cues. The original score is credited to the usually reliable Angelo Badalamenti, best known for his work on "Twin Peaks" and other David Lynch projects, but Zilberman would have been better off relying entirely on Beethoven and friends; the movie really comes alive only when the characters express themselves through music (performed for the most part by the Princeton University-based Brentano String Quartet).

Some viewers may find this handsome, stuffy movie worthwhile for its quintet of fine lead performers, who make beautiful music together even if the piece itself is no classic. No doubt the sallow-faced Walken in particular — his upswept leonine mane emphasizing Peter's status as the leader of this particular classical-music pride — relished this chance to play a talented, well-adjusted individual instead of a weirdo. In fact, with its themes of career achievement and farewell, "A Late Quartet" would function very well as a valedictory for the 69-year-old actor, but — fortunately for moviegoers — Walken has no plans of going away: According to the Internet Movie Database, he has another six films set to arrive in the next several months.

"A Late Quartet" is at the Malco Ridgeway Four.

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