'A Late Quartet' Keeps Track of Time

Christopher Walken's performance is intriguing and unusual in any number of ways, locating that wry, shrugging sweetness that made him such a high point of Hairspray.

A Late Quartet

Director: Yaron Zilberman
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Christopher Walken, Mark Ivanir, Imogen Poots, Madhur Jaffrey, Liraz Charhi
Rated: R
Studio: RKO Pictures/E One
Year: 2012
US date: 2012-11-02 (Limited release)
UK date: 2013-02-01 (General release)
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.






Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.


Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Gloom Balloon Deliver an Uplifting Video for "All My Feelings For You" (premiere)

Gloom Balloon's Patrick Tape Fleming considers what making a music video during a pandemic might involve because, well, he made one. Could Fellini come up with this plot twist?


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Brian Cullman Gets Bluesy with "Someday Miss You" (premiere)

Brian Cullman's "Someday Miss You" taps into American roots music, carries it across the Atlantic and back for a sound that is both of the past and present.


IDLES Have Some Words for Fans and Critics on 'Ultra Mono'

On their new album, Ultra Mono, IDLES tackle both the troubling world around them and the dissenters that want to bring them down.


Napalm Death Return With Their Most Vital Album in Decades

Grindcore institution Napalm Death finally reconcile their experimental side with their ultra-harsh roots on Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism.


NYFF: 'Notturno' Looks Passively at the Chaos in the Middle East

Gianfranco Rosi's expansive documentary, Notturno, is far too remote for its burningly immediate subject matter.


The Avett Brothers Go Back-to-Basics with 'The Third Gleam'

For their latest EP, The Third Gleam, the Avett Brothers leave everything behind but their songs and a couple of acoustic guitars, a bass, and a banjo.


PM Picks Playlist 1: Rett Madison, Folk Devils + More

The first PopMatters Picks Playlist column features searing Americana from Rett Madison, synthpop from Everything and Everybody, the stunning electropop of Jodie Nicholson, the return of post-punk's Folk Devils, and the glammy pop of Baby FuzZ.


David Lazar's 'Celeste Holm  Syndrome' Appreciates Hollywood's Unsung Character Actors

David Lazar's Celeste Holm Syndrome documents how character actor work is about scene-defining, not scene-stealing.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.