The Occasional Movie Review

latequartetTonight’s movie is A Late Quartet about the members of a string quartet, which, like the lives of its members, is facing a time of transition.

For those who find slow movies boring, you can just tune away now. This is most definitely not for you. For those who find the thought of a deep metaphorical character study interesting, read on.

The Fugue Quartet has been around for 25 years, performed over 3000 shows, and is considered one of the best string quartets in the world. But as their oldest member, the cellist, Peter, faces the diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease and decides that he will leave the quartet after its next performance, the remaining members of the group find themselves trying to come to grips with what his decision means for all of them individually, and, more importantly, the group itself.

Daniel, the first chair violin, is a perfectionist. Juliette, the viola, feels that she would be lost without the remainder of the group. And Robert, the second chair violin and Juliette’s husband, is dissatisfied with his life and his role in the quartet, having played backup to Daniel for the entire 25 years.

Mixed in with this is the death the year earlier of Peter’s wife, an opera singer, and the fact that Juliette was raised by Peter and his wife after her mother died in childbirth. Meanwhile, Alexandra, Robert and Juliette’s daughter, is finding her own path as a violinist in the music world, and seeks Daniel’s tutoring, putting them in a romantic relationship.

By the time they deliver what may be their last performance together, everyone except Peter is their lowest personal point. And it’s then that Peter sees his chance to make the quartet and the people in the group whole again.

Sure, the movie is complete allegory, and you know what the point is. But it actually keeps you on edge, not resolving anything until the last couple of minutes of the film. More importantly, even though most of us have no idea what the life of a musician is like, it’s still very easy to relate to the story and characters here, because at one time or another, we’ve all felt nearly everything that one or all of the individuals in the story have felt.

What’s more remarkable is just how the movie is cut to a bare minimum to get the story told: the cast numbers about 15 people, the musical performance revolves around just one piece of music (Opus 131 by Beethoven), and keeps the relationships all intertwined within the group. And nothing about it seems simple or out-of-place or even cheap. Everything has a purpose and a specific role to fill, and everything else is deemed unnecessary, and we don’t miss it.

The acting is wonderful: Christopher Walken as Peter, Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Robert, and Catherine Keener as Juliette. Peter is afraid of not only his own personal future, but the future of the group as he decides to leave it. Juliette is terrified of everything she has built her life around for 25 years dissolving away: her marriage, the quartet, and even her daughter. And Robert feels trapped in unappreciated roles in his marriage and in the group–something that he thinks Peter’s departure can finally help resolve for him.

This is another of those simple films that is remarkably powerful without feeling like it’s trying to be. It’s complex enough so that all of the feelings and decisions by the characters are completely plausible and believable. And it does it all without any gimmick or lack of transparency.

Highly recommended for those who like the deep, rich character studies. Four out of Five Stars. 

See you tomorrow.