Some films have that special something, and some films seem like they stepped in something. Allow me to help you know the difference, and maybe find you something good to watch.
A LATE QUARTET – rated ‘R’ / One hour and 45 minutes / Dir. by Yaron Zilberman / Written by Yaron Z. and Seth Grossman / actors: Christopher Walken, Catherine Keener, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Mark Ivanir, Imogen Poots, Liraz Charhi
Right off the back, I’m going to tell you that there are no car chases in this. No explosions, or bloody deaths. No murder-plots, tigers, or magic jewelry.
There is, however: betrayal, sex, power struggles, gorgeous music, and some solid acting all-around, not to mention a top-drawer performance by Mr. Christopher Walken.
I’ll get back to him in a moment.
A LATE QUARTET is a film about a world-class string quartet (Walken, Keener, Hoffman, and Ivanir) that is coming upon their 25th anniversary of having played together. These four people have learned how to keep their egos in check and play as one unified sound for 24 years despite their complicated relationships together, their pasts, and their various other issues.
But now the cellist (Walken) has received some bad news from a PhD, and may soon have to retire from the group. This is when all-hell breaks loose.
Weeeell “all-hell” may be a little strong. People start sleeping with people they maybe shouldn’t be, and no one’s good at keeping secrets. Tempers flare, egos are bruised, you get the idea.
The thing is, this is a fairly straight-forward drama. It isn’t overly creative in its camera-work, and it isn’t overly clever in its dialogue. The characters, even, aren’t overly larger-than-life.
This is a simple but subtly powerful drama about four people. Actually, five. Imogen Poots plays the college-aged violin-prodigy daughter of Hoffman and Keener. And she also plays a part in the lusting and the regretting of it all. ‘Six’ if you count an exotic piece of temptation played by Liraz Charhi, but we unfortunately never get to explore her character too much. She has a function to the story, and then she goes away. Too bad, because I think the spice she added could have been more liberally sprinkled upon this film.
But really, this is four actors showing off their skills magnificently.
Of the four, Mark Ivanir is the least known, even though he was in SCHINDLER’S LIST and he’s been on TV forever. He does a fine job in this keeping up with everyone else, and playing Daniel, the first violinist. He’s the brilliant but uptight perfectionist with a secret or two to keep.
I love Catherine Keener in everything she does. Her face is great, so expressive. So sad, even when she laughs. There is something abundantly sexual about her, despite how (perhaps because) she never acts overtly sexual. Her character has to balance some extremely conflicting emotions, and she accomplishes this more often than not, wordlessly, powerfully. She plays the viola in this film, which I found out is a kind of middle-child between the violin and the cello.
Philip Seymour Hoffman is great. I don’t need to tell you this. From that cringe-worthy bit-role in BOOGIE NIGHTS way back when, to starring (with Keener as his wife, just like here!) in Charlie Kaufman’s demented, exhausting and genius SYNECDOCHE, NY, Hoffman has proven his worth over and over again.
In this, we see him more restrained, which is fitting, as his role is the second violinist. He has spent the bulk of his life literally playing second fiddle to someone else. But that repression just gives contrast to his eventual explosion, figuratively speaking of course.
And then we have Christopher Walken. It is wonderful to see him once again showing off his acting chops in a role that doesn’t require him to be a bad-ass (not that I don’t love those roles too). He doesn’t kill anyone, or threaten to, and he isn’t crazy. He’s just a man. An extremely talented man, by all accounts. And the scenes with him are tremendously enjoyable. Textured and human. He packs so much character into his screen-time that I want to forget that this film isn’t only about him.
He has a wonderful monologue-scene where he’s teaching a room full of advanced students, and relating to them an anecdote about his interaction with one of the greats that he played for back in the day. I won’t spoil it for you, but it works on so many levels, and really, it sums up the spine of this whole story. It’s funny, touching, and profound, without dragging anything out. So nice.
In many ways, A LATE QUARTET reminds me of a Woody Allen film. Set in New York, peopled with older, intelligent, upper-class characters who strain against their bonds of marriage, mortality, and family, against their obligations and against even their own expectations.
I’m sure not many people will see this in the theater. What with the classical music. Themes of dying, retiring. Old people. There are no criminals. No heroes. No fart-jokes. No hobbits.
Just a handful of great actors, telling a simple story about how human we all are after-all, with our irrepressible lust, our egos, and our expiration dates. Everyone. Even those serious people over there playing classical music on their rare and expensive instruments.
They should have called this film ‘Sex and Violins’.