‘A Late Quartet’ (2013) isn’t exactly a ‘great’ quartet.

5 Apr

A Late Quartet posterA Late Quartet’s title turns out to be a dualistic one, as not only does the movie revolve around one of Beethoven’s “late quartets” (his Opus 131, String Quartet No. 14 in C# Major, to be precise), but it also stars a string quartet who may not survive for much longer. After years of playing together, first violinist Daniel (Mark Ivanir), second violinist Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman), violist Juliette (Catherine Keener) and cellist Peter (Christopher Walken) start losing their collective mojo through a combination of diagnosed illnesses, personal issues and dodgy performances. Can they reconcile their differences and pull off at least one more show?

Perhaps the movie’s name actually has a trinity of meanings; this movie is late, having been out in the USA since bloody November, it’s only hitting UK and Irish screens today. But was it worth the wait? Did director Yaron Zilberman strike a high note here? For the most part, yes it was; A Late Quartet is a well-made, well-directed and (for the most part) well-acted feature that takes a subject as oblique and aloof as chamber music and makes it accessible to the musically uneducated peasants among us (myself included). From cameos of famous classical musicians Nina Lee and Anne Sofie von Otter to the hurling around of technical music jargon, this movie certainly panders to a niche audience.

But the opaque musical mindset is more of a backdrop for the drama which ensues, and it is here that the film excels. Peter struggles with an early prognosis of Parkinson’s Disease, thereby numbering his cello-playing days. Robet and Juliette are not only professionally compatible but also romantically involved, though various events lead to the crumbling of their long-standing marriage. Daniel teaches violin to aspiring musicians, builds bows and practices obsessively; though one of his students, Alexandra (Imogen Poots), who just so happens to be the daughter of his musical comrades, may be hiding feelings for him.

If the above description sounds like something out of Coronation Street or Home and Away, that’s because it sort of it; this film is decidedly soapy, as nasty revelations appear and disappear like crescendos and diminuendos on a stave. What raises the bar far above the aforementioned time-wasters here is the acting on display. Hoffman and Walken are great as always, as is Keener. Ivanir surprised me the most here; aside from Schindler’s List, I don’t recall seeing him before (though he does voice virtually every vaguely Eastern European bad guy in modern FPS video games). Their personalities all clash, and the resulting sparks are addicting.

This is an angle which you'll see a lot, but it's riveting each time.

This is an angle which you’ll see a lot, but it’s riveting each time.

I noted earlier that the acting was above average “for the most part”. Who prevents it from being an all-encompassing umbrella of acclaim is none other than Imogen Poots, who is shockingly terrible in this film. Her dialogue is awkward and clunky, her backstory is tough to buy, she conveys romantic emotion remarkably poorly and she is impossible to empathise with at all. I literally dreaded each new scene for fear of her coming on eclipsing her colleagues’ performances with her failure. She is the absolute pits and, aside from her pretty face and awesome apartment, I wish she wasn’t in this.

Whoever the lighting guy is (they turned the lights on before the credits could get there, grr!) he or she deserves some sort of accolade, for this is an impressively well-lit film. While this may seem an odd element to praise, the lighting effects are noticeably above par. The set design is fantastic, especially at Peter’s house, and the snowy New York locations gleam and sparkle. While the musically is obviously aimed at the older dudes in front few rows of the cinema with the comfortable shoes rather than the spotty Radiohead fan at the back, as a jazz/metal/anything-but-classical enthusiast I did not feel musically alienated.

Nothing ground breaking but certainly above average, A Late Quartet is a fun way to reassure yourself that you are, in fact, a cultured person. Much funner than, say, going to the opera… Or seeing a string quartet.

Simon says: good movie! Educational too – I now know more Italian.

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