Solemn and serious to the point of discomfort, A Late Quartet is at least four clichéd movies stuffed into one ponderous, unpleasant narrative. The film takes its own ripe melodrama so seriously, it seems primed to spontaneously emerge as the parody of upper-middle-class Manhattan sophisticates it should have been.
The film opens with the four principals of a quartet taking their seats on stage in preparation for a concert. After offering their heavy stares to one other, the scene fades to black. The narrative picks up some weeks earlier, as the group is set to practice in preparation for its new season. Peter (Christopher Walken), the group’s cellist and father figure (having taught the other members) finds he can’t keep up with a piece of music. A visit to the doctor reveals the early onset of Parkinson’s. When he shares his diagnosis with the group, there is the expected sympathy and anguish, particularly when Peter requests that the first concert of the season be his last.
There’s also opportunism, as Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman) sees a potential change in the makeup of the group as his chance to at least share first violin duties with Daniel (Mark Ivanir). Robert’s desire sets off a series of decisions that upset the lives of the quartet in unexpected ways. When his wife, Juliette (the group’s violist, played by Catherine Keener), tries to convince Robert that his taking the first violin chair would upset the balance of the quartet, he sees it as a betrayal of her spousal duties and injury to his pride. That Daniel and Juliette were once lovers likely feeds into his outrage.
Introduced into this mix is Robert and Juliette’s college-age daughter, Alexandra (Imogen Poots), herself a violin prodigy. Poots is the only actor who registers true desire and passion in her character, a young woman who finds an outlet in a too-obvious plot development of her own, as she finds herself attracted to the comically brooding and intense Daniel. She is the only breath of fresh air amidst a boring, colorless, unlikeable lot.
So much of what unfolds is numbingly predictable — preposterous affairs, marital strife, a hysterical scene of “you were never there for me” between mother and daughter. And despite multiple rehearsals and discussions of music, at no point does A Late Quartet convey the beauty of the group’s chamber music and the effort it takes among the four players to create that beauty. It’s impossible to conceive that these bloodless bores could be so moved by the music they play, no matter how painfully they scrunch their faces, as if every pass of the bow were a mini catharsis.
The only of the four leads not giving a constipated performance is Walken, who nevertheless sounds ridiculous reciting a T.S. Eliot poem at the film’s opening and just as ridiculous lecturing his students on the need to play their instruments with passion. By the time Peter gives his farewell speech to the audience, it reeks of Oscar baiting.
This isn’t an engrossing exploration of relationships among four people and the role their gifts play, nor is it a worthy love letter to the beauty of chamber music. A Late Quartet is, however, a dreadful middlebrow piece in the guise of serious drama.