Judge Gordon Sullivan loves the musical genre of washboard drama.
No arrangement is more beautiful…or more complicated.
Music is one of the hardest things to get right in the realm of cinema. Before the coming of sound technology, local musicians were employed at many exhibition sites (not all of them theaters), either improvising or playing from a score generated for the film. Once sync-sound technology came around, filmmakers still had to figure out how to harness this new ability, especially where music was concerned. This lead to a lot of early films that have highly unorthodox uses of music and sound effects. Even after the use of sound was normalized in film, there was still a regular obsession with films about music and musicians. Whether they're backstage musicals or rock mockumentaries, cinema loves a story of musicians and music. A Late Quartet adds to the wealth of excellent musical dramas with an ensemble cast that harmonizes beautifully.
Facts of the Case
The Fugue String Quartet is about to celebrate its anniversary season when leader Peter (Christopher Walken, Annie Hall) reveals he has been diagnosed with Parkinson's and therefore this will be his last season. That sets the other members of quartet on a path to self-discovery that could tear them apart. Married couple Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master) and Juliette (Catherine Keener, Being John Malkovich) find their marriage in turmoil after the news causes Robert to stray. The fourth member, violinist Daniel (Mark Ivanir, The Good Shepherd), is carrying on a relationship with Robert and Juliette's daughter that's similarly inappropriate. Meanwhile they're hoping to go out with a bang by playing a complicated piece from memory.
On one level, A Late Quartet isn't really about music. That is to say that while the film paints a fantastic portrait of a group of musicians, it's mostly about the characters and not the fact that they make music. This film could have been set in any number of worlds—actors, dancers, even a construction crew if you wanted to stretch it. The sense of change, of a world falling apart due to bad decisions and the passing of time, is what's highlighted in this human drama. The fact that it's a group of musicians is significant, but this is in no way an alienating portrayal that only fellow musicians can appreciate.
On another level, of course, A Late Quartet is all about music and musicians. The performance of the piece (from memory!) is central to the plot of the film, and the score and musical performance take up a significant percentage of the film. The actors acquit themselves admirably here, and the sense of performance is paramount. I doubt that the actors can perform these pieces flawlessly, but the film is careful to shoot them like they can. More importantly, the film gets the feeling of being a musician right in a way that few films do. There's an intimacy and a dependence that develops with any group who plays together repeatedly, and A Late Quartet captures that feeling (and its emotional price) with great care.
All this is carried by an exquisite cast. Christopher Walken hasn't given us a character this vulnerable in years (if ever). The knowledge of his impending incapacity, one that will take the solace of music from him, plays out as a tragic weight. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays another in a series of men trapped in a subordinate position, and he brings a kind of pathetic dignity to the role that almost excuses his behavior. Mark Ivinar plays the high-strung first violinist with an energy that's impressive, and he bristles well at his possible loss of position. Finally, Catherine Keener rounds out the quartet as wronged woman who has to watch her marriage disintegrate alongside the quartet. To her credit, it's difficult to tell at times which affects her more negatively. Imogen Poots also gets some screen time as Robert and Juliette's daughter and she brings an impressive energy to her smaller role.
A Late Quartet (Blu-ray) helps things as well. The package says 1.78:1 but the actual film is presented in a 2.35:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer that's rich on detail. Shot on digital, the transfer handles the look of the film well, with only a bit of noise in some darker scenes (like caused by the capture not the transfer). Colors are muted but well-saturated and black levels deep and consistent. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is perhaps even more impressive. Dialogue is always clean and clear from the center, but the track shines during performances sequences. The strings are rich with a good dynamic range and subtle shadings from low end to the high.
The film's lone extra is an 8-minute featurette that includes interviews with the cast. It's short but the information contained in it is interesting.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
A Late Quartet emphatically does not aim for the fences. It's a minor film, more like an etude than a symphony. That's not a problem (and keeps the emotional roller coaster from feeling overdone) but some viewers might find the quiet, slow nature of the film's unfolding to be a bit too slow and quiet. In a strange coincidence, A Late Quartet (which is also known as Quartet) played Pittsburgh the same time as another film called Quartet, a comedy about a group of musical divas in a retirement home. Though I haven't seen the latter film, I can understand the appeal of taking these kinds of performers much less seriously than A Late Quartet does. Viewers have to be prepared to treat the difference between first and second violence as a matter of life-and-death if they are to connect with this drama.
A Late Quartet (Blu-ray) is worth a rental for fans of any of the actors, downbeat drama, or classical music performance. Though it doesn't offer any shocking truths it provides a small scale drama that satisfies with its smaller ambitions. It does a fine job presenting the film, though most viewers are going to wish for more substantial extras.
Perfectly arranged, and not guilty.
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