Monday, 1 July 2013

Review: A Late Quartet (2012)

American documentarian Yaron Silberman, the director responsible for 2004’s documentary Watermarks, delivers his first major motion picture. An intelligent title with a top notch cast including Christopher Walken, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and the queen of independent cinema, Catherine Keener, A Late Quartet pays homage to chamber music and the cultural world of New York. 

After a classical string quartet's 25 years of success, Peter (Christopher Walken) the beloved cellist and oldest member of the group comes to the tough, decision that he must retire when he discovers he has contracted Parkinson's Disease. Peter announces his retirement over dinner to other members of the quartet. His announcement proves a catalyst for letting their hidden resentments come to the surface. Husband and wife team, Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Juliette (Catherine Keener) take the news particularly hard and cracks appear in their marriage and suppressed emotions and uncontrollable passions spiral out of control on the eve of their 25th anniversary concert, possibly their last performance ever.

Their daughter, Alexandra (Imogen Poots), a fractured soul seeks solace in the arms of the remaining member of the quartet, Daniel (Mark Ivanir). As the couple fall in love, Alexandra’s disruptive desires threaten to tear the group apart forever, even though they are famous for playing Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14, opus 131, a piece that is played non-stop no matter how life gets in the way...

The Late Quartet is an ensemble melodrama that avoids soap operatics and afternoon-TV-movie histrionics by having the lines delivered by a credible dream cast. At times the dialogue itself is near wince inducing and is a fraction away from unintentionally comical, yet the visual composition and the musical metaphors wrap a beautiful bow around events and present it to the viewer as a perfect and classy little package. The tone of the film, as one would expect, is the celluloid equivalent of rich mahogany, perfectly buffed and reflective, giving the audience an insight into the largely undiscovered world of the classical musician. What lies beneath the cacophony of strings is a very human story that explores the flip-side of success, a clashing of egos and the knock on effect of a mid-life crises.

Silberman’s debut feature is mature and intelligently constructed. Interweaving scenes of high melodrama, music and anguish, the director never takes his eye off the ball, ensuring that moments of stillness and silence deliver as much information to the viewer, as the heavily scripted scenes. Christopher Walken has minimal screen-time as Peter, yet his performance packs a memorable punch that sends the quartet on a downward spiral. The announcement of Peter’s dementia, is a subtle scene that relies heavily on the reaction of the remaining members of the quartet. Peter is the unknowing catalyst for all that follows and Walken approaches the role from a unique paternal perspective, keeping himself together for the sake of his friends. Peter is performed perfectly, a fractured and gentle man with deep pain beneath the his elegantly composed facade.

Together the cast form the perfect combination. The dynamic between Catherine Keener and Philip Seymour Hoffman, pushes the film into ‘must-see’ territory. Robert and Juliette have been at the top of their game for 25 years but now, egos, jealousies and familiarity have begun to breed contempt. Petty arguments snowball into more serious affairs. Peter’s dementia causes Juliette to look inward and assess her feelings. A scene outside of Sotherby’s, where she confronts Robert is badly mismatched with a soundtrack that fails in its desired effect and moves towards the TV movie. However, this is one minor fault and Keener proves she is as watchable as ever, in a role that sees her burdened with mounting tension and bursting with personal anguish. Together with Hoffman as Robert, the two are frustratingly problematic which, although amidst a symphony of cliches, makes for a very rewarding combination. Quite rightly, empathy wraps itself around Juliette along with her warm winter coat thanks to the vulnerability Keener brings to the role.

Hoffman on the other hand is a ball of confusion and arrogance, detestable yet compellingly watchable. Together, Keener and Hoffman deliver an engrossing performance, two startling opposites united through music and the fact that both are chronically narcissistic. Imogen Poots’ Alexandra is a young violinist, who also happens to be Robert and Juliette’s seductive daughter. Poots, a relative newcomer compared to her fellow cast-members, makes the most of her small role. She draws the performance from Mark Ivaner, as Daniel, the fourth member of the quartet and the focus of her seduction and admirably steals every scene in which she is featured. Alexandra is mature beyond her years, the fractured yet manipulative martyr, whose passive-aggressive vendetta against her semi neglectful mother, played by Keener, provides one of the film’s most dramatic, farcical and memorable scenes.

Silberman has proved himself as one to watch with an eye for drama and an aristocratic aesthetic that firmly places his directorial stamp on the much documented city of New York. Commensurate to this a stellar cast deliver faultless performances that will satisfy film lovers and delight fans of chamber music. A Late Quartet is warm, engaging and entertaining film and fully deserved of a standing ovation.

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