Music and human connection.

A Late Quartet

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

            A Late Quartet begins and ends with its strongest scenes: a renowned string quartet playing Beethovenís Opus 131 on a New York stage. Between the two performances, we have, on the strong side, learned something of how gifted musicians work and live during nine months on tour and during endless rehearsals. How they behave as ordinary mortals is less intriguing.
            As the talented four morph into soap opera principals, we need to remember that since all lives center around the search for human connection, our uniquely individual wiring leads inevitably to drama. Here we see on the work side both the strong bonds and petty jealousies of four musicians spending endless hours together in travel, performance, and rehearsal. On the personal side, is it any surprise that uncommon people end up in common melodramas?
            Peter (Christopher Walken) who helped a younger colleague form the quartet 25 years earlier, tells his peers that illness is forcing his retirement. Will the group replace him and continue? That central theme triggers the release of the emotions and behavior held in check by the group for so long. Robert (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) feels unappreciated and longs to play first violin though he knows he is the lesser talent to the first chair Daniel (Mark Ivanir).
            It doesnít help that Robertís wife happens to be fellow violinist Jules (Catherine Keener). Because Jules has become indifferent to him, Robert feels inadequate both as a musician and as a lover. Their daughter Alexandra (Imogen Poots), a talented violinist herself, is taking lessons from Daniel who is deeply serious and precise about the way music should be played. Thatís a lot of soapy drama.
            What about the cast? Christopher Walken, playing against his quirky type, is the solid center of the quartet. In the face of a health challenge, he retains his love of the music and his loyalty to the group. They turn to him in respect. Phillip Seymour Hoffman, always inventive, makes Robert a lightning rod, the trouble spot that the others must trip over to get where theyíre going. Mark Ivanir is convincing as a dedicated musician whose eyes are opened to a new dimension. Catherine Keener is fine in the difficult role of troubled wife and mother of a daughter who is wading into adult life.
            Imogen Poots is a young British actress who creates Alexandra in such an original and imaginative way that she becomes the dramatic focus of the film. In equal parts rebellious daughter, seductive young woman, and serious musician, she embodies all the conflicts of crossing to adulthood bearing the gifts of brains and talent. She is an actress who can, and surely will, inhabit any role.
            This is one of those low profile movies that far outshines most of the quite terrible ones that poured into theaters during this barren multiplex year. If it slipped by too quickly, you might - I hate even to suggest this Ė want to rent it.


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