Critics were busy last weekend heaping praise upon big-time director Robert Zemeckis for Flight, which they deemed the kind of sophisticated adult drama Hollywood does not make much of anymore. But that film, with its sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll opening and its after-school special of an ending, is more like something a teenager thinks an adult film is supposed to be. Critics and audiences alike should turn to A Late Quartet, also released last weekend, for a lesson on making a real, sophisticated film about adults. And while they are there, they will catch what might well be the best acting of the year.
A taut, rich chamber piece, A Late Quartet follows one pivotal winter in the life of a New York City string quartet. The hook is that each character’s personality has developed in concert with his or her role in the group. Daniel (Mark Ivanir), the virtuoso first violin, is cocky, obsessive, and emotionally detached; Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the second violin, is steadily excellent but frustrated by the lack of recognition for his talent and the lack of excitement in his life; his wife Juliette (Catherine Keener) is the viola – her long withheld emotions bubble dangerously beneath a placid surface; and finally, there is Peter (Christopher Walken), the cellist and former teacher of the other three, whose wisdom and calm demeanor keep the group together.
The dynamic has worked for twenty-five years, but after Peter, who has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, decides to retire, a major shake-up ensues. Imagine a divorce, but one involving four unique and intertwined personalities instead of two: there is no way this will end cleanly.
When Peter shares his diagnosis and announces his decision to leave the quartet, it sends a ripple of change through the group. They struggle to balance their emotions with the practical task of finding a replacement for Peter. Meanwhile, Robert takes stock of his life, decides that he needs more, and requests that he and Daniel alternate the position of first violin in the upcoming season. Much more than Peter’s illness, it is this action that upsets the quartet’s delicate dynamic. Robert’s talent is harshly evaluated; feelings are hurt, and loyalties are questioned. The human drama that follows is rich and often tragic, small in scale but deeply resonant.
The success of a film such as A Late Quartet rests entirely on the chemistry of the actors. Ivanir and Keener give compelling supporting performances. Hoffman’s character undergoes the largest transformation; he nurtures his desire for vitality until, suddenly, it turns on him. Hoffman has been on top of his game for so long that it is easy to take his work for granted; that his performance here does not stand out is only a testament to his past brilliance.
It is Walken who gives the most impressive performance, acting as a reassuring presence amidst the painful human drama. He is, quite simply, the film’s heart and soul. Along with the recent Seven Psychopaths, it is Walken’s second stand-out performance of the season. While the two films could not be more disparate in tone, he plays similar roles in each: a wise, elderly man seeking peace and harmony in a complex, painful world. This is an unexpected coda to his career. In the last several decades, he has become a caricature of himself, a weirdo for hire, used to provide credibility in Tarantino rip-offs and off-beat comedies. His persona has been one with concepts of irony and detachment, so this recent string of deeply felt supporting performances could not be more surprising, nor more welcome.
A lesser director might have injected himself into the proceedings, but first-timer Yaron Zilberman wisely cedes most scenes to his actors. The story is about four accomplished artists working together, creating drama with their craft, and, of course, that is what the film is, as well. What a gift for these actors – to feel and create with these men and women who are the best in their profession. And what a gift for the audience, as well.
Although A Late Quartet is not a film that demands to be seen in the theater, you should pay your eleven dollars and see it there anyway. Hollywood needs to be encouraged to keep making more films like it.
My Rating: See it in the Theater