Present and Past
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
—T.S. Eliot, “Four Quartets”
Yaron Zilberman’s A Late Quartet looks like one of those November films that speak to audiences interested in the finer things. Set on the Upper West Side in the deep chill of winter, it offers a seeming checklist of somber elements, from a teacher reading T.S. Eliot to his students to the onset of a dread disease. It even includes an initially odd bit of unexpected casting in Christopher Walken as a quiet paterfamilias. But the checklist turns into an outline for the film that could have been, an echo of class, taste, and meaningful art instead of the real thing.
Walken stars as Peter Mitchell, the leader and cellist of the Fugue, a string quartet coming up on their 25th anniversary. As the other three members get ready for their new season—bickering about minor things in the way of people who have been friends so long they may as well be family—Mitchell reveals that he’s in the early stages of Parkinson’s. He doesn’t think he’ll be able to continue playing and wants them to look for a replacement. This idea strikes second violin Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and violist Juliette Gelbart (Catherine Keener) as absurd, much like auditioning somebody to be a new sibling. However, Daniel Lerner (Mark Ivanir), the flinty first violinist, has no such illusions. To his mind, Mitchell is right. They should replace him now and move on.
That’s not to say Mitchell can easily replaced. Walken makes him intriguing and unusual in any number of ways, locating that wry, shrugging sweetness that made the actor such a high point of Hairspray. He relays a fatherly calm that’s plainly appealing to Robert and Juliette, currently living on the last guttering fumes of a marriage many years past its expiration date. Lerner is less inclined to admit his needs or affections, but even as he refuses to follow Robert’s advice to play without sheet music in order to make his art more spontaneous, the film makes clear the pain of losing his mentor.
That Lerner displaces that pain into his perfectionism is cliched in its own way. With his steely demeanor and close-cropped hair, Lerner is more unstoppable machine than musician, the Jason Statham of string quartets. This makes Lerner at once a crucial element in the group and an obstacle. But director and co-writer Zilberman loses focus on the quartet’s taut interplay, reverting instead to melodrama, in particular in Robert’s alienation as second violinist, not to mention semi-forgotten husband. Thus he’s all too ready for the appearance of a beautiful seductress, delivered into the film for the sole purpose of engineering a second crisis with the quartet. When Robert watches her dance flamenco in a bar, her forehead may as well read “TEMPTATION.”
Worse, Robert and Juliette’s marital skirmishes open up a third front in the form of their petulant teenage daughter Alexandra (Imogen Poots). This development might have been highlighted some deeper issues within the family and quartet-as-family, particularly her frustration at having two parents who spent most of her childhood performing in faraway cities. But Poots’ overheated and frequently silly performance undermines any potential complexities in Alexandra’s storyline. Her performance, cast adrift amid the work of the other solid performers is so off-putting that it nearly ruins the film all by itself.
But it’s not Poots’ fault that A Late Quartet loses track of Mitchell’s compelling story. As the movie detours into the Fugue’s squabbling, Mitchell’s embodiment of a meditation on encroaching mortality and the sacrifices that artists make in their drive toward perfection is all but forgotten.