Disclaimer: I approached this film with prejudice. Several things shine in my life: I love chamber music; I think Philip Seymour Hoffman is the best actor around; Katherine Keener is hot; and I am starved for realistic drama. So when the lights went down for A Late Quartet, I was ready for a treat.
I was not disappointed.
When the kingpin of a New York-based string quartet, cellist Peter played by (gasp!) Christopher Walken, announces that his recently-diagnosed Parkinson’s disease is forcing him to retire, the other members of the ensemble go into a suicide spin. Violist Juliette (Keener) and second violinist Robert (Hoffman) find their twenty-year marriage threatened by Robert’s dalliance with a Spanish dancer; and their daughter Alexandra (Imogen Poots) takes advantage of the chaos to bed first violin Daniel (Mark Ivanir). All this while the quartet prepares for a performance of Beethoven’s String Quartet Number 14 — a marathon for even the most settled players.
I loved it.
Oh, yeah. There are some inconsistencies. First, all the musicians are living in classy apartments in expensive New York. Didn’t know chamber music paid so well. And, talking of money, Juliette and Robert balk at paying a mere $25 thousand dollars for a classic violin, an instrument that should have gone for a hundred grand at least. Finally, Peter (Walken) is shown suspended by a sling while he treads a treadmill — even though his diagnosis is months old. Sorry — I am two years into Parkinson’s and I can still march for 30 minutes on a treadmill without the help of a sling.
And after a few hours sleep . . .
I woke early this morning with more thoughts chattering. Here’s my second take on the film.
Parkinson’s disease is subtle. So subtle, in fact, that it begins, according to many researchers, about 20 years before the first symptoms become apparent. Similarly (as the mathematician in me likes to put it), the disintegration of the Fugue Quartet, although not apparent, is well underway before the action begins.
Perhaps it is because the five main characters are so damn intelligent and cultured that they cannot see the gritty truth. Juliette and Robert’s marriage has become stale; Daniel’s narcissism is beginning to irk Robert; and Alexandra is building up the head of steam that will allow her to escape her mother’s dominance.
Peter’s announcement tips the first domino. Unprepared for disaster, the others blunder about causing more havoc than necessary. Robert jumps into bed with a dancer, and Juliette blocks any attempt a reconciliation. Then adolescent Alexandra drags Daniel into her bed, well-knowing that her mother is due to visit. The only sane character is Peter, who sensibly kicks the entire quartet out of his home when things go south.
Dramatically, the film ties things up nicely with Peter’s graceful retirement and Alexandra abrupt ending of her dalliance with Daniel. But the other three members of the ensemble are still in turmoil. It is doubtful that the recruitment of a new cellist will help them survive.