Saturday, December 1, 2012

A Late Quartet

Do you need to like chamber music to like A Late Quartet? Probably not. In fact, viewers hoping to sink into long stretches of Beethoven’s opus 131 may come away from the theater disappointed.

The film examines the lives of a group of musicians—and not only their musical lives—in the course of a few weeks during which the cellist (Christopher Walken) discovers that he’s suffering the first stages of Parkinson’s Disease. Will he be able to finish out the quartet’s twenty-fifth season? If not, who can be found to replace him?

A few pivotal scenes take place in Walken’s elegant Manhattan flat, during which the members of the quartet practice little but discuss much in thoughtful, measured tones. They’ve spent a quarter of a century being attentive to one another’s playing, and that same sensitivity and deference comes out in their conversation.

We find ourselves more often at the apartment of the violist (Katherine Keener) and second violinist (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) who’ve been married for decades. Their daughter (Imogen Poots) is an up-and-coming violinist herself, and early-on in the film she starts taking lessons from the group’s first violinist, an icy perfectionist (Mark Ivanir) whose dedication to his art leaves him with little patience or tact when it comes to doing whatever’s necessary to ensure the future of the group—or teaching a young student who lacks his extreme devotion to the art-form.

Tensions between  Hoffman and Ivanir surface early as they dispute whether to play the Beethoven opus 131 with or without the years of notes they’ve been penciling on their sheet music. (Skyfall this ain’t.) The situation grows more heated when Hoffman points out that if they have to hire a new cellist, the quartet's sound will change, and in that case, it might be a good time for Hoffman to take over the 1st violinist part on occasion. “That’s a horrible idea, coming at the worst possible time,” is Ivanir’s acerbic response.

The situation grows yet more complex when Keener fails to support her husband’s new idea with enough enthusiasm. She’s always had strong feelings for Ivanir; in fact, it appears they’ve been meeting regularly on a bridge in Central Park for decades. (Why? To discuss the opening of Mozart’s “Dissonant” quartet, I guess.)

Throw in a flamenco dancer with whom Hoffman often goes jogging, and the fact that Walken’s wife has recently died, and you have all the makings of a high-brow soap opera…Yet somehow, the creaking gears of the plot mechanism don’t detract much from the depth of emotions being exhibited on the screen. Declining health, professionalism, parenthood, mortality, honesty and tact,  mentorship, infidelity, artistic abandon—these things are all exposed in the course of A Late Quartet, and they get to you in a big way.

They got to me, anyway. I choked up on several occasions, and for entirely different reasons.

Then I went home and listened to Beethoven’s opus 131.

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