This review can also be found at the South West Londoner, here.
Despite my constant burning need to see pretentious non-mainstream film (if it’s in a different language or about socio-politics, even better), my knowledge of the fine arts is actually not so great.
My initial interest in seeing A Late Quartet was, embarrassingly, because Christopher Walken takes a major role in it. He’s had a myriad of roles and cameos in films since the 60s, many of which ended up being cult hits. He even starred in some terrible video games in the mid 90s.
A large part of his popularity is his notably stilted speech, and since it tends to work best in comedies, I was interested to see how he would fare in something that looked to be so serious.
As it turns out, A Late Quartet is wonderfully human and moving, and Walken does a great performance by… largely not being there. It’s an odd situation.
Pete Mitchell (Walken) is the cellist in an internationally famous string quartet called The Fugue. He shares the spotlight with Daniel Lerner (Mark Ivanir) on Violin I, Robert Gelbart (Philip Seymour Hoffman) on Violin II and Juliette Gelbart (Catherine Keener) on Viola.
Recently Pete’s playing has been affected by his shaking hands. After a doctors appointment, he finds out that it’s Parkinsons, and bows out from The Fugue, asking the other members to find a replacement.
As it turns out, this upset sparks desires for change in the rest of the quartet, and emotional havoc ensues.
It’s all very melodramatic, but the way the script is written makes that not matter. All the narrative points are closely and expertly woven in with the films themes, in a way that you won’t need a degree in media studies to get (though a little knowledge about classical music will help).
The ideas are honestly clever, from the way that the amount of time Pete is on screen is related to how badly he’s suffering from his condition (though he’s arguably the protagonist, Parkinsons is very effective at taking away his agency, both as a disease and in the script), to how the emotional issues of the quartet match up nicely with the musical role they play.
The soundtrack was funnily enough, a mixed bag. There are some elegant and well timed cues of classical string pieces, including the one piece that the film is arguably ‘about’, that I won’t spoil for you. However, it’s matched with a general orchestral score that feels very generic. Although the two musical styles share instruments, the feel is very different. It made some scenes feel notably schmaltzy – though that may just be my jaded heart.
That said, the experience as a whole was touching. It manages to pull you along on an emotionally manipulative ride so well you’d think it was a Hollywood production, if it wasn’t for the quietly middle class subject matter.
Watch It: If you know your way around a string section, If you want to see a cult actor happily make peace with his age on film, if you want a talking point for your film discussion club.
Skip It: If the phrase ‘human drama’ makes you dry heave, if you’re not ready to make peace with your age, if you want something that doesn’t feature the American Middle Class.
Want more? Go and check out some live classical quartets! I promise, it’s a moving experience the first time. If you want to see Walken in something cheerier, he has a great supporting role in Catch Me If You Can.