A Late Quartet was my biggest surprise of the Toronto Film Festival last year, second only to my beloved Looper of the movies that screened at the fest. I expected big things for the poignant, sensitive drama - critical acclaim, some nominations for the cast and maybe filmmakers - but it came out under the radar in November. Now I get to champion it again for a second look on Blu-ray, so I will.
A string quartet is shaken when its lead cellist Peter (Christopher Walken) is diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. The impending restructuring, and possible breakup, of the 25-year-old group fuels dramatic interactions between players. Second violinist Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman) sees a chance to improve his status in the group. First violin Daniel (Mark Ivanir), tutoring Robert and Juliette (Catherine Keener)’s daughter, Alexandra (Imogen Poots), has a way of inappropriately inserting himself into the family. Juliette and Robert’s personal loyalties are tested. Everyone disagrees about how, or even if, Peter should be replaced, and more I don’t want to spoil.
This is exactly the kind of drama we should all crave: characters with definitive motivations and expertise making decisions, good or bad, moral or amoral, and dealing with the consequences. The professional context gives the drama a highbrow backdrop, but entirely relatable to any profession, although perhaps especially relevant to anyone in the arts. Challenging those characters is like a big special effect. Ambition, insecurity and denial set in. What’s best for the quartet might not be good for the marriage of two players. Fabulous conflicts. Perhaps the most refreshing part of the drama is that none of the characters act confident about their feelings. They’re uncertain and just trying to figure things out, which is much more relatable.
It fortunately doesn’t play the Parkinson’s card too hard. It’s not a disease of the week, triumph over adversity movie. The diagnosis is really just the MacGuffin to fuel the drama. Any number of things could shake up this group, and this comes at exactly the moment when it will challenge the relationships the most. They’re established, comfortable, complacent and ready to be threatened.
The standout performance is Walken, only because it’s not how we usually see him. Most films are happy to play the intimidating, volatile Walken pronunciation card, but Late Quartet allows him to play a sensitive, sympathetic character. He’s equally powerful, perhaps more so because he’s creating moments without the easier crutch of violence. He’s also not playing the sympathy card. He’s just making decisions about how to wrap up his career and take care of the group’s future before his physical capacities are gone. That makes him endearing to us, because he’s not milking it.
Of course Hoffman, Keener and Ivanir are excellent too. They bring dimension to conflicts we’ve seen before and really make it feel like the first time. That’s hyperbolic but it’s the difference between a cliche and good drama. Adultery is no longer a one-note plot device. It’s about the fragility of relationships and ego needs, which is what adultery is actually about in real life but most love triangle movies don’t delve that deeply.
Maybe I should just pinpoint the awesome scenes, so when you get there on Blu-ray you can go, “Oh, that’s what Fred was talking about vaguely.” When Juliette confronts Robert in the food court, Robert asking if Juliette really loves him, Alexandra having it out with Juliette in her apartment, Peter’s story about handling mistakes, Peter’s speech at the final concert, among many others.
Poots is a delight because she’s not taking any of this as seriously as the grown-ups. It’s an important dose of whimsy to remind us that life isn’t all serious and some of these situations are ridiculous. They also let Alexandra talk like a young person. She’s not so wise beyond her years that she knows exactly what to say to her parents. She’s feeling everything as raw emotion, at times a respite from the darkness, at other times twisting the knife in the gut.
The Blu-ray looks phenomenal. It’s not only clear and crisp, but luminous in every location from concert halls to high end New York apartments and Central Park in Winter. The lighting is gorgeous, making simple scenes between two or three or four characters look epic. Every shot looks elegant, with a graceful staging and interaction between actors presented beautifully.
We get to see extreme detail in the woodwind instruments, and of course, even the best spaces in New York have craggy details in the corners and chips in the walls. Frames of three or four characters are sharp and striking, and shots around the streets of New York look three dimensional, without any 3D technology. We’ve also got HD detail on Hoffman’s shower scene. You’re welcome, ladies.
The only bonus feature is a short seven minute featurette featuring the actors and filmmakers talking over clips of the movie. It’s a standard promotional piece, the likes of which runs in between movies on a cable channel. It’s pretty spoiler filled so don’t watch it first. Poots says the phrase “master Beethoven” unintentionally.
It’s kind of nice that this is basically a movie-only edition of A Late Quartet. The movie can speak for itself, and perhaps add to its mystique if there isn’t a lot of talk behind the scenes. Hopefully it will find its popularity on video so maybe one day we’ll get the expansive Late Quartet special edition down the line.
Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.