A Late Quartet

When a film starring three prominent Oscar winners/nominees isn’t getting any buzz in the 2012 Oscar race, you wonder about the sum of its parts. A Late Quartet is one of two films this Oscar season with “quartet” in the title, which is a little confusing. However, this one, directed by first timer Yaron Zilberman, is about a string quartet that functions more like a grown family with everyone struggling to keep the group together while leading their own lives. The complexity of the screenplay by Seth Grossman really starts to build after the first thirty minutes of the film and steps out of the calm, leading into something very dramatic and emotional, which surprised me.

The elder of the group, Peter Mitchell (Walken), and obsessing perfectionist Daniel Lerner started the quartet called The Fugue with married couple Juliette (Keener) and Robert (Hoffman). After performing together for decades, the group is now faced with losing Peter who is in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease and wants to retire. At the mention of Peter’s departure, the group begins to crumble and for the first time, members begin to express their own feelings about each other and the group as a whole. “Becoming part of the group is about becoming one,” Robert says in a taped interview from their earlier days.

The beginning was very slow for me because I didn’t see where the story was headed or have any notion that it would take any kind of hidden turns. In the second act of the film when the group begins to fall apart, it could be argued that it plays like a soap opera; but for this film, that is exactly where it needs to go to offer these characters the chance to stretch their limits. A Late Quartet really does work well as a consolidated ensemble, and the four main actors are all given character arcs in their development. It is also quite interesting and a little scary what talent can do to people struggling to lead normal lives.

There is a fiery scene between Keener (Being John Malkovich, Capote) and her daughter (played by Imogen Poots) that allows Keener to return to the type of powerful performance I have missed from her recently. Throughout the film, Keener is strong and she really stood out to me. Just this year, Walken shows a polar-opposite performance range if you compare it to his role in Seven Psychopaths (which was excellent); here, he is without his usual humor and gimmicks. The film weaves around these characters in a way that really allow the actors to shine and do some incredible work in character exploration.

Final Thought – All the actors do some of their best work in this character-driven ensemble.

Grade B

By: Dustin Chase W.

Dr. Donna Copeland’s


Imagine a perfect rendition of the process of a musical quartet being threatened with a break-up after 25 years of playing together and sharing personal lives, and you would see some version of A Late Quartet.   Fractures in human relationships are some of the hardest to bear, and this film realistically and tenderly depicts the havoc that separation can create.   In this case, the diagnosis of a serious illness initially lights a spark that ignites smoldering conflicts that have heretofore been kept under wraps.  Underlying the professional jealousy, the marital tension, and parent-child conflicts is the erosion of self-confidence and a bit of panic about what to do without their friend and mentor.

 Yaron Zilberman, the co-writer and director, has composed a work that resembles a musical composition, with its drama, nuanced emotions, thunderous clashes, and notes that sometimes come together, sometimes come apart and recombine.  We are not always sure of what will happen in the finale.

 The musical notes are tone-perfect in the form of the actors.  Christopher Walken as Peter is the star, both in the sense that all roles eventually circle around him and in his surprising (to me) dramatic presentation without a hint of irony or sarcasm.  It reminded me of Steve Carell as a therapist in Hope Springs, but whereas Carell’s character as a therapist had to maintain an expressionless or mirroring pose, Walken is given full range to express fear, warmth, sentimentality, a sense of loss, and gratefulness, while playing the role of mediator for the group.

 Philip S. Hoffman likewise is playing a role completely foreign to his persona in The Master.  Here, he is not a master at all, but rather subservient in a most helpful way, both in his marriage and as the second violinist.  He “masters” the role as if had never had an experience of being a charismatic leader.  And it is so rewarding to see Catherine Keener in a film that is up to her skills in acting.  This film is light years away from The Oranges, one of her recent films, which has similar themes but nowhere near the depth and true insight of A Late Quartet. Not to be discounted is Mark Ivaner, who plays the lead violinist and is the youngest member of the group.

 As a final note, the music, highlighting Beethoven’s Quartet in C Minor, opus 131, is beautifully rendered, and we hear just enough to enjoy it without getting too distracted from the story.    Grade:  A