One must take it as a matter of faith that any subject, no matter how obscure or mundane, could be turned into a compelling movie in the hands of a capable director and ensemble. That said, it must be conceded that certain subjects lend themselves to cinema better than others. Classical music has proven fertile ground for intrigue before, but then again, films like Amadeus weren't just about the music; they used it as a backdrop for larger games of will power and glory. To be fair, A Late Quartet isn't solely about the music either, but there seems little at stake but it. One could hardly ask for a better cast (Christopher Walken, Catherine Keener, Philip Seymour Hoffman) to act out this conceit, but even they are unable to animate it into something more universal.
Peter Mitchell (Walken, in the kind of subdued performance that made him famous but has been absent from his filmography lately) is diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in the first twenty minutes of Quartet, effectively putting an expiration date on his career as a cellist. The timing, admittedly, could have been worse; his diagnosis comes at the end of twenty-five years with a world-renowned string quartet, also featuring Robert and Juliette Gelbart (Hoffman and Keener) and Daniel Lerner (Mark Ivanir). When Mitchell informs them that their upcoming concert will be his farewell, it sends the rest of them into a tailspin, reawakening old ambitions and making the common ground between these talented people even less stable. Robert always wanted to play first violin, but had always been kept in second by a conspiracy of circumstances. Seeing an opportunity to spring for Daniel's chair, he suggests that they alternate between chairs, a suggestion met with disdain by both Daniel and Juliette. It doesn't especially help that Daniel is teaching their daughter Alexandra (Imogen Poots) music, further involving her in the rivalry between them.
It's not hard to see how chamber music gets its stuffy reputation (the name itself suggests a poorly ventilated, fussy little room). It's ornate and it's sophisticated, but at no point could anything that goes on there be described as 'red-blooded'. The same could be said of Quartet. At all times, the tenor of the acting is deathly serious (a smile is hardly cracked in the entirety of its hour and a half running time), even during scenes of ostensible levity such as when friends are just having dinner. It's all very dignified and composed, but it might just be too composed. Given the kinds of consequences these characters are supposedly facing, they never seem dumbstruck as to what to say or stuck for a dramatic pose that would be right at home in a Crate & Barrel catalog.
It certainly doesn't help that these are the exact kind of people who were parodied so capably by Woody Allen his entire career. Insulated, obsessive, and only dimly aware of any world beyond New York's Upper West Side, the characters in A Late Quartet are so wrapped up in their craft (and, by some extension, themselves) that they seem to cry out for it, or at least some acknowledgement of humorous potential. That's not to say that that's all that these people deserve (they are exceptionally talented), but their interactions are too mannered and cold to provide any entrance for the uninitiated into their world. Had Quartet any real sense of just how much theirs differs from that of the rest of the world, this might be less of a liability, we're given the odd sense of looking in on alien world without the director looking on with us. It's a frequently engaging, but cool, experience.
The discincludes the featurette "Discord and Harmony: Creating A Late Quartet".
"A Late Quartet" is on sale February 5, 2013 and is rated R. Drama. Directed by Yaron Zilberman. Written by Seth Grossman, Yaron Zilberman. Starring Catherine Keener, Christopher Walken, Imogen Poots, Mark Ivanir, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Wallace Shawn.