Sunday, November 3, 2013

A Late Quartet

Directed by Yaron Zilberman.
2012. Rated R, 106 minutes.
Mark Ivanir
Liraz Charhi
Wallace Shawn

The Fugue is a highly successful string quartet that has been playing together for twenty-five years. They are led by David (Ivanir), the first violinist and an uncompromising perfectionist. Robert (Hoffman), the second violinist is married to viola player Juliette (Keener). This seemingly perfect square is completed by Peter (Walken), the cellist and elder statesmen. We meet them as they’re getting ready for the start of their next season. Peter realizes he isn't quite right and soon learns he is in the early stages of Parkinson’s. As he contemplates his predicament, his illness becomes the impetus for the lives of these people and their group to start coming apart at the seams.

These are people who have intently studied every note of the classical music they play. No subtlety or idiosyncrasy of its composers has gone unnoticed. Fittingly, the story we’re told is very nuanced. It starts with the double-edged dialogue spread throughout. The characters, especially Peter, will occasionally spout little anecdotes about their lives that work on the literal level by being amusing. Subcutaneously, they function as clever analogies for what’s taking place on screen. The tricky part, which A Late Quartet masters, is they don’t tell us what’s about to happen. Instead, these tales present us a way of looking at the various situations that informs our viewing.

Of course, we run into some predictable plot points along the way. Thankfully, the movie deals with them in often unconventional ways. However, it’s not doing this just for the sake of being creative, or contrarian. They culminate in scenes that feel wholly organic to the situations, forgoing many of the contrivances of other movies. This fosters the notion we’re watching real people go through difficult times.

Also helping us believe in what we’re seeing is a phenomenal cast. Among our four principals, plus Poots as Robert’s and Juliette’s daughter Alex, there isn't a false chord struck. I’m a hug fan of Philip Seymour Hoffman so it’s no surprise I find him to be great here. I will note that for some reason I haven’t figure out yet, he wears his wedding band on his right hand for the entire movie. Mistake or metaphor? Catherine Keener plays a woman caught in the middle of multiple dilemmas. Still, it never feels like she’s overwhelmed despite the fact all of these are potentially earth shattering. Keener does a wonderful job conveying this. Perhaps most impressive of them all is Christopher Walken. For starters, he steers clear of giving us the usual Christopher Walken shtick. Admittedly, it’s served him well in many roles including the recent Seven Psychopaths. The absence of it works here. He really gives a poignant performance in what is ultimately a heart-breaking storyline.

While I see Walken’s storyline as a sad one, it’s debatable whether it’s totally so. That’s because it sets the stage for the others to possibly end happy. Whether any of them are or are not is open to interpretation. This is good. It leaves us something to discuss. There is ammunition for both sides of the argument. It gives us this ammo in a way that is not confusing, but fun to analyze.

As much as I like this movie, it isn't for everyone. It is not the type of film that throws us into deep waters as soon as possible. We wade in, slowly at first, and gain momentum as time passes. Even so, this is a drama absent much of the over the top histrionics found in plenty other pictures. Your “movie night” crowd might find it boring, especially if it is made up of viewers with middle age still over their horizons. This is a movie about adults with no illusions of youth who’s adventure is born of the anxiety of breaking their decades long routines.

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