A Late Quartet parallels the ebb and flow of life with the necessity for technical proficiency to perform classical music and its potential to dissolve music’s intrinsic passion. Unfortunately, the filmmakers thought it best to contrast the intricacies of the quartet with philandering, and they didn’t trouble themselves with a protagonist.
In case you haven’t guessed already, I recommend you skip this one altogether. Here’s why:
- The acting might have saved the movie if I cared about the characters, but the story wanders around so much superficial drama it comes across as a weepy, teenage soap opera (picture Edward and Bella of the Twilight saga as snooty winos in mid-life crisis and you have the idea).
- The story never realizes anything of substance other than, “Life is complicated and beautiful… and don’t sleep around with your fellow-musicians’ daughter”.
- I left the theater wishing the story had centered around Peter, since he was the only interesting character and has a very endearing story.
Peter Mitchell (Walken) is an aging widower who’s just been diagnosed with parkinson’s disease on the eve of a new season with his world-renown quartet. The quartet itself quickly falls apart as Robert, the second violinist (Hoffman) struggles with envy over the first chair, a position held by a meticulous violinist, Daniel (Ivanir). As if this weren’t enough drama or conflict, Robert’s wife, Juliette (Keener) learns he’s having an affair and that their daughter (Poots) is sleeping with Daniel.
Their new season is meant to open with Beethoven’s opus 131, meant to be played attacca and Peter would like it to be his “farewell”. The seven-movement opus presents the challenges to Peter’s quartet analogous to life itself; the quartet has to adjust throughout the opus not only to their own instruments but to one another.
As Peter Mitchel asks, “Was [Beethoven] trying to point out some cohesion, some unity between random acts of life?”
The problem with the story is that it tries pulling its random scenes together, but without a central character. We have a struggling marriage, an envious violinist, a bitter and estranged daughter, a man facing the end of his career who is over- whelmed with the fear of a degenerative disease, an egotistical first violinist who has the emotional maturity of a six year old, etc… but no protagonist.
Peter is an inspirational mentor to his students and surrogate father to Juliette. His battle against the inevitable is more than enough to carry the movie. Instead, the film jumps from page to page with no fluidity. And as much as the story struggled under its own weight, life too struggles to find rhythm; is nothing more than random acts to those who allow themselves to be lead by their whims. As I looked upon the beauty of the instruments themselves, I couldn’t help but notice that the wood seems to have always been in this form, so well suited to the musical instrument, and so well crafted. Not unlike the brilliant violinist who’s labor of love is lost in the meticulous nature of his obsession, intention is lost to the trap of “following our hearts”. Synchronicity, rhythm are always a struggle, but living for immediate reward will sacrifice the beauty of a life not left to random acts, but lived on purpose.