The movie, “A Late Quartet” depicts the personal and professional issues that threaten to derail a long-running chamber quartet. The characters’ depth and sense of place help to make the movie realistic to viewers who are outside the world of professional classic music.
An Introduction to “A Late Quartet”
The movie stars the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christopher Walken, Catherine Keener and Mark Ivanir. Imogene Poots plays Hoffman and Keener’s daughter, Alexandra. The foursome have existed for 25 years as a world-renown chamber quartet. They tackle difficult pieces with intelligence and tenacity. Their knowledge of composers’ ideas and biographies is as formidable as their ability to play the centuries’ old pieces with authenticity. Unfortunately, that’s the easy part.
The characters played by Hoffman and Keener are married. Some audiences will remember that Hoffman and Keener worked together in “Capote” (2005), where Hoffman played the title character, and Keener his childhood best friend, Nell Harper Lee. The pair also played a troubled married couple in “Synecdoche New York” (2008).
A good-natured tension exists between Hoffman and Keener as Robert and Juliette. The tension is not helped by the fact that Juliette once had feelings for Daniel (played by Ivanir). Daniel and Robert are the violinists; Juliette plays viola, and Peter (Walken), rounds out the group as cellist. As Peter, the group’s oldest member eyes retirement, Robert suggests that he be allowed to play in the first chair position. Both Daniel and Juliette discard the idea and talk over Robert’s arguments.
Viewers are made privy to Robert feeling shut out and belittled. He has an affair. Juliette finds out. Meanwhile, Daniel is tutoring Robert and Juliette’s daughter, Alexandra. They, too, begin an affair. When Robert finds out, it sparks a physical fight between him and Daniel in Peter’s well-appointed townhouse, during practice.
The group remains committed to the music, if not to each other. One of the worst break-up scenes occurs when Alexandra breaks up with Daniel. While the group’s interpersonal strife threatens to break them, Peter is diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
Peter wants to find a replacement. The rest of the group fears that a new person will ruin the dynamics. Peter undergoes various therapies to stave off the ravages of the disease. Ultimately, he performs, but roughly midway, Peter announces to the crowd that he has to stop, and brings out his replacement. She is as energetic and skillful as the others. As the concert concludes, Juliette and Robert embrace. It’s the end of the movie, so viewers are left to speculate about their futures. However, what has led up to that moment are a series of realistic and poignant moments that help the movie earn its somewhat happy ending.
The world of “A Late Quartet”
This is New York City at its most refined in a contemporary setting. There are a few setting where key scenes occur. All of the main characters’ homes are shown, even Alexandra’s apartment. In addition, there is Central Park, busy streets teeming with taxis and pedestrians and a stately college where Peter still teaches.
Peter’s townhouse stands out the most. It is beautifully decorated, and richly painted. The calm in it reflects Peter’s nature. However, one of the rooms is done in shades of red, and when Robert and Juliette are present, the color symbolizes their tension.
The music is a character, too. The only time contemporary music sneaks in is during a scene in Alexandra’s studio apartment. Aside from that, viewers get an education in classical music. The result is that viewers are not overwhelmed. Instead, they are engaged.
As a fan of various types of music, I couldn’t help but think what if the same approach was taken to films about other genres? The world-building helps to clue in viewers outside of the story’s geographical and professional realms. The level of investment viewers have for movies of this type is high, and worth the effort of filmmakers.