Midway through A Late Quartet, Christopher Walken’s character is teaching a music class during which he tells a story of an incident when he played a piece of classical music for one of his peers and thought he’d messed it up good and proper. However, the other musician told him that he’d done well and that it’s important to focus on the good stuff and leave the morons to pick on the faults. He may very well have been inviting the film’s audience to do the same as A Late Quartet does do some things well but it also has its very clear faults.
The films tells the story of a world-renowned string quartet comprising of cellist Peter (Christopher Walken), first violinist Daniel (Mark Ivanir), second violinist Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and violist and Robert’s wife Juliette (Catherine Keener). However, when Peter is diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and his future in the quartet becomes uncertain, the group’s professional and personal relationships become strained.
A Late Quartet is a film about classical music that isn’t really about classical music. Those hoping to delve into the world of Beethoven, Mozart et al will be somewhat disappointed as this is very much a character piece that relies on the dynamics between the characters and the performances of the actors. It’s a rather slow film with no discernible action to speak of, but it does very well to keep your attention, which enables you to invest in much of the plight the characters experience.
However, some story arcs are a lot stronger than others, and perhaps the most interesting is Walken’s Peter. He is the old master, the one that all of the others look up to and it genuinely feels like a hammer blow when he is diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Seeing him come to terms with the news and deteriorate as the film progresses is interesting but it’s something that ends up being on the film’s periphery. It is used as the catalyst for the other characters’ problems but it’s the most interesting story of the film and is not afforded enough attention. Robert is another engaging character and is superbly played by PSH, but his wife Juliette is much less interesting and feels very much like a weak link. Daniel is hot-headed, arrogant but undoubtedly talented but he’s a character who’s difficult to warm to and a relationship he develops with Robert and Juliette’s daughter feels contrived and a formulaic addition to an otherwise generally intelligent script.
Once you’ve bought into these characters’ lives (or some of them at least), the film delivers with an emotional climactic punch. It’s a little manipulative and it doesn’t really come as much of a surprise but it’s still satisfying enough. There was room for A Late Quartet to be something a little more than it ended up being. Some characters and storylines are stronger than others which leaves it feeling slightly uneven, but it’s still an engaging watch. Maybe only a moron would focus on the faults but when those faults prevent it from being as good as it potentially could have been, they’re worth mentioning.