Sex and Violins
Sometimes you go to the cinema because there's a film on you particularly want to see, sometimes you go because there was a trailer that looked sort of interesting, sometimes you go because the saturation-bombardment of publicity is inescapable and the film in question is a major cultural event. And sometimes you go to the cinema just because you want to go to the cinema, and what you go to see isn't necessarily very important.
I tell you, folks, much as I enjoyed Trance last week, a lot of the films around at the moment really leave me sort of cold, which is a surprise as some of them are big-budget genre fantasies of the kind that once would have been right up my alley. But, truth be told, the likes of Oz the Great and Powerful and Jack the Giant Killer really don't appeal right now, and so – somewhat to my surprise – I found myself going to see Yaron Zilberman's A Late Quartet.
I believe this is one of those movies enjoying what always seems to me like an eccentric release, by which I mean that it became available in theatres, on DVD, and for download at round about the same time. The theatre release probably qualifies as counter-programming, given the preponderance of big dumb movies for young people. That said, I sense a degree of uncertainty as to whom A Late Quartet is aimed at from its supporting programme – no actual cinema trailers at all, while the adverts preceding it appeared to be aimed at, to say the least, a broad demographic: one for spot cream, one for a cruise company, two connected with the dangers of degenerative eye disease and one for Wrestlemania 2013.
There's only metaphorical wrestling in the movie itself, which is concerned with the activities of a long-established and celebrated string quartet, based in New York City. On cello is the patriarchal figure of Christopher Walken, while playing the viola is his adopted daughter, Catherine Keener. Keener's husband Philip Seymour Hoffman is second violin, and Walken's brilliant former student Mark Ivanir is first violin. As you can see, the ties that bind the four musicians are nearly as close as those of a family – only compounded by the fact that Ivanir is giving Keener and Hoffman's daughter Imogen Poots private tuition – the difference being that their activities require, if anything, a greater degree of harmony than that of a comparable group of blood relations.
But hidden tensions between the different members of the group are suddenly articulated when Walken discovers a sudden deterioration in his technique is due to the onset of Parkinson's disease: he will soon lose the ability to play to the necessary standard. Who should replace him? Should he even be replaced at all? With the future of the quartet suddenly in flux Hoffman takes this opportunity to voice his desire to play first violin at least some of the time, something the obsessively perfectionist Ivanir vehemently objects to. And so on, the relationships of the foursome rapidly becoming strained, to say the least.
Perhaps it's the Manhattan setting, but it seemed to me that this movie isn't a million miles away from the kind of thing Woody Allen's based his career on for the last two and a half decades – the personal and professional tribulations of a small coterie of affluent metropolitans. However, and I say this with all due respect and affection for Allen, A Late Quartet is a much more impressive and satisfying movie than anything he's done recently. Partly this is because the unfolding of the plot is intelligent and convincing, with the different threads interacting subtly and plausibly, but also because this film doesn't have the occasionally-uneasy throwing together of comedy and drama that marks some Allen movies. This movie is measured and consistent, restrained and classy almost all the way through (although a scene where Hoffman appears to be having a very nice time while a lithe flamenco dancer sits on him is slightly incongruous).
My musical experience is, of course, limited (currently trying to master Bat Out Of Hell on the uke, should anyone be interested), but all four actors make very convincing virtuoso musicians, and the film does a good job of suggesting some of the demands of this kind of career and the sacrifices involved. But it works as well as it does because they are superb in bringing these characters to life as real people – this film doesn't have the biggest cast, but everyone in it is brilliant.
You don't necessarily expect affecting humanity from a Christopher Walken performance, but he makes for a touchingly vulnerable figure here as he comes to term with the loss of the central element of his life. No-one else in cinema delivers a monologue quite like Walken does, and he gets a couple of crackers here. That said, he's by no means the central character, and – if I'm pushed – I'd have to say the acting honours go to Philip Seymour Hoffman, who is as compelling as usual as a man unwittingly in the midst of a midlife crisis. Admittedly, he is doing the kind of 'wounded bear' character we've seen from him before, but this is still a Rolls Royce display of screen acting.
But there really isn't very much wrong with A Late Quartet in any department. Some of the general arcs of the plot are, to some degree, predictable, but not to the extent that the film becomes dull or hackneyed. The ending manages to give a sense of closure without being unrealistically tidy or glib, which is a neat piece of storytelling before one even considers what it may be suggesting about the power of music or its true hold over the main characters – but then this film is a class act throughout. A thoroughly engaging and really impressive drama.