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A melodramatic Late Quartet hits all the wrong notes
The pursuit of perfection in art has its pitfalls; the pursuit of an audience’s emotional reaction through strained and overwrought soap-opera drama, however, should be avoided at all costs. In A Late Quartet, filmmaker Yaron Zilberman falls into this trap in spite of his unique subject matter and star-studded cast.
Revolving around the complex dynamics of a Manhattan-based string quartet, the story quickly falls prey to stock tales of uncontrollable lust and competing egos that threaten to derail the talented group.
The catalyst of all these theatrics is a cellist’s troubling diagnosis of Parkinson’s. Played with brilliant subtlety by Christopher Walken, the cellist is clearly the glue that holds the operation together—when it is discovered that he may no longer be able to play, it seems as if all hell has broken loose.
A Pandora’s box of infidelity, ambition, and betrayal shakes the group’s foundations, leading to the introduction of far too many stiff and clichéd subplots—an Excel spreadsheet might be necessary to keep track of who cheated on whom. Making the audience believe that all this drama occurs because of the patriarch’s resignation is a bit of a stretch, and squanders the compelling and underserved subject of the complex world surrounding classical musicians.
In between all the yelling and door-slamming, there’s hardly a single instance of levity in the entire film. The characters take themselves far too seriously for that, choosing instead to wax lyrical about their art or personal woes ad nauseam. Though Philip Seymour Hoffman is an actor who never fails to hit the mark, his egotistical violinist character had me with head in hands.
The best moments occur between the painfully staged histrionics, when characters like Hoffman leave their pride at the door and are at their most vulnerable. Acting such as this was both the highlight and saving grace of the film, though nothing could really be done to compensate for the overreaching plot structure.
Instead of honing in on the intriguing psychology surrounding a disintegrating marriage or an aging performer at the twilight of his career, Zilberman touches on every character like he’s playing a game of duck, duck, goose. Lingering a little longer is what gives a story nuance and depth, especially when exploring the intersection of artistic integrity and life’s own imperfect fragility.
In one of the film’s most naturally executed scenes, first violinist and incurable perfectionist Daniel (Mark Ivanir) advises aspiring virtuoso Alex (Imogen Poots) to read Beethoven’s lengthy biography to better understand the personal pain that went into his composition. This idea seems to become a theme of the story, as every character’s cringe-worthy, intimate history comes under the spotlight with the apparent justification that it informs and shapes their artistic identity in a significant way.
The problem is that every story is constructed with such cautious and trite vignettes that it could practically be ripped off a particularly self-important episode of Gossip Girl. Drama like this can never be more than just that, hot air to fill the gaps in between the rare encounters with depth.
Unlike Black Swan, a film that constitutes a perfect example of how artistic ambition can become the impetus for one person’s unraveling mind, Quartet mimics wild abandon without really unleashing it. Maintaining tight control over every thread in its narrative, it merely skims the surface of a valuable topic.
At one point, Hoffman’s character advises another to “unleash your passion.” If only the filmmakers could practice what they preach, this story might have been able to find its missing harmony.