After a sneak-preview premiere at this month's Indie Memphis Film Festival, the high-minded chamber-music drama A Late Quartet opens this week for a full local run. Christopher Walken, dialing it back significantly from his recent performance norm, is Peter, cellist and leader of the Fugue Quartet, a classical music supergroup of sorts that also includes temperamental first violinist Daniel (Mark Ivanir), resentful second violinist Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and Robert's violist wife, Juliette (Catherine Keener), who serves as an increasingly fed-up den mother for the group.
Directed and co-written by first-time feature filmmaker Yaron Zilberman, A Late Quartet opens with the group practicing the titular Beethoven piece in preparation for the opening of their new season, but complications ensue, including the onset of Parkinson's for Peter, a dalliance between Daniel and Robert and Juliette's violinist daughter Alexandra (Imogen Poots), marital issues, and professional jealousies.
The film juxtaposes the working interactions of the quartet with their intertwined private lives, until the two worlds collide messily. The former — a process-oriented look inside the classical music world — is more compelling than the more familiar and sometimes contrived latter material. As a novice at best with the classical world, I was interested in all the backstage elements of a world that isn't often explored on screen, from the disagreements over approaches to material to competition over roles within the group. A Late Quartet suggests an overlap between the interdependence of a working quartet and that of a quartet of friends and lovers, but the balance of interest is uneven. Keeping the film afloat even as it veers into received melodramas is the acting — especially, Hoffman and Keener — which is sharp throughout.
Genteel but usually engaging, A Late Quartet is nothing special, but it could well find an audience as cinematic counter-programming directed at older, more upscale film-goers.
A Late Quartet
Opening Friday, November 16th