There’s nothing especially unusual about working with the same three people for twenty-five years, but it’s not often that one’s work, life, and self-esteem hinge as profoundly on colleagues as it does in a musical group. We’ve all heard the ups and downs of bands that have been together for decades (think Aerosmith, Bon Jovi, U2), but what of their less recognizable counterparts? What might life be like inside a string quartet, and what would happen if one of its most integral members were to leave? A Late Quartet explores all of these issues in a manner that is both fascinating and tiresome.
When cellist Peter Mitchell (Christopher Walken) learns he is in the early stages of Parkinson’s Disease, he immediately begins preparing his exit from the quartet he has been in for a quarter of a century. Realizing that he can’t play at the level to which he is accustomed, he plans to leave gracefully, before the ravages of the disease can noticeably affect his ability to perform. He would also like to name his predecessor, his occasional substitute, Nina Lee.
It certainly sounds like a sensible and dignified plan, but his announcement has an instant ripple-effect. As Peter grieves the loss of his career and a working body, the other three members of the quartet are sent into crises of their own. Juliette (Catherine Keener) is devastated by the news and uncertain as to whether she wants to continue playing without Peter. Meanwhile, her husband Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman), also in the quartet, seems to be muddling through a midlife crisis that is only intensified by Peter’s news. Insecurity about Juliette’s love leads him to stray from their marriage, and indignation over playing second to Daniel (Mark Ivanir) inspires him to demand equal playing time onstage after Peter’s departure. His timing, however, couldn’t be worse: Juliette is utterly vulnerable and his power play looks completely cold and crass in light of Peter’s situation. As for the difficult and demanding Daniel, he seems to have found true love for the first time in his life…with Alexandra (Imogen Poots), Juliette and Robert’s daughter, a daughter, who, incidentally, is feeling profoundly bitter over her mother’s absence growing up and has some very choice words to share on the topic.
Clearly we’re left with a complicated situation, and this does make for compelling viewing. All of the major players offer up meaty performances, particularly Walken and Keener, and as a character study, A Late Quartet is undeniably fascinating. Unfortunately, the whole thing seems a bit long (even at a totally doable 106 minutes) and drags a bit at times. The acting and subject matter may prove interesting enough, but nothing about it screams “watch me again”.
The Special Feature “Discord and Harmony: Creating a Late Quartet” is included on the Blu-ray edition.