Current Weather
The Spy FM

Amid Discord, A ‘Quartet’ Strives For Harmony

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
November 1, 2012

It’s rare these days to see an old-fashioned, elegant chamber-piece movie about life and art — let alone one with Christopher Walken as, of all things, a steadying influence.

In Yaron Zilberman’s minor but satisfying A Late Quartet, Walken gets to keep his electric hair and preternatural calm. Otherwise, though, the actor flexes decidedly unmenacing new muscles as Peter, the recently widowed elder statesman of a highly regarded New York string quartet that has played together in apparent harmony for 25 years. A diagnosis of early Parkinson’s disease (his unflappable physician is played by Madhur Jaffrey, queen of Indian cuisine) moves Peter to announce his imminent retirement, and the chips start falling all over.

The winter of upper Manhattan discontent that follows, gracefully shot under heavy snow by veteran cinematographer Fred Elmes, works the well-trod movie terrain of a work-family whose fragile balance is thrown off by infidelity, insecurity and personal and professional jealousy — to say nothing of the shenanigans of a nominally grown-up daughter still dining out on what she sees as her folks’ deficit parenting. Or, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot, who gets a topic quote in the opening scene, the nasty past creeps into the present and threatens the bright future.

A Late Quartet keeps high-culture company with Eliot, with cellist Pablo Casals and with Beethoven, whose Opus 131, along with a discreetly plaintive score by Angelo Badalamenti, ushers the group through seven movements of crisis. A seasoned indie cast keeps things moving smoothly, with Philip Seymour Hoffman as the hotheaded second violinist who suddenly announces that he’s had it with playing second fiddle to the perfectionist soloist (Russian-Israeli actor Mark Ivanir).

Catherine Keener is Hoffman’s wife, until now a source of harmony in more ways than one. British actress Imogen Poots provides the only dissonant note with an overdone New York accent and a ton of sex-kitten posturing as Hoffman and Keener’s talented lost soul of a daughter, who has scores to settle of which she’s dangerously unaware until it’s almost too late.

In truth, the dramas on display are fairly humdrum, and the ambience of hushed good taste can feel stifling. Yet Zilberman clearly loves imperfect people as much as he loves perfect music, and the movie’s best moments show off his relish for, shall we say, the fullness of artistic temperament under pressure. When threatened or provoked, even — perhaps especially — sublime musicians can throw punches or scurry off for extracurricular trysts with winsome flamenco dancers or the barely-of-age offspring of close colleagues.

It falls to Peter to rein in the egos and bring the ensemble back in tune, and Walken is more suited to the task than you’d think. Whether channeling psychos or romancing John Travolta in Hairspray, the actor is by temperament an understater. Though the script sometimes lumbers him with superfluous exegesis and quote-filled anecdotes with built-in life lessons, it’s Peter’s wordless scenes, when his virtuoso cellist massages the fingers that no longer obey orders, or eyeballs the drop between his apartment and the street below, that speak eloquently to the way that time itself — more than lust, envy or any other of the venial sins — makes monkeys of us all.

For Zilberman — who made the remarkable 2004 documentary Watermarks, about a Viennese Jewish women’s swim team that survived Hitler — only art, or any great labor performed with others, endures, and for a while, at least, makes us better than we are. [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

Leave a Reply

5AM to 9AM Morning Edition

Morning Edition

For more than two decades, NPR's Morning Edition has prepared listeners for the day ahead with two hours of up-to-the-minute news, background analysis, commentary, and coverage of arts and sports.

Listen Live Now!

9AM to 10AM The Takeaway

The Takeaway

A fresh alternative in morning news, "The Takeaway" provides a breadth and depth of world, national and regional news coverage that is unprecedented in public media.

View the program guide!

10AM to 11PM On Point

On Point

On Point unites distinct and provocative voices with passionate discussion as it confronts the stories that are at the center of what is important in the world today. Leaving no perspective unchallenged, On Point digs past the surface and into the core of a subject, exposing each of its real world implications.

View the program guide!

Upcoming Events in your area (Submit your event today!)

Streaming audio and podcasts

Stream KOSU on your smartphone

Phone Streaming

SmartPhone listening options on this page are intended for many iPhones, Blackberries, etc. with low-cost software applications available to listen to our full-time web streams, both News on KOSU-1 and Classical on KOSU-2.

Learn more about our complete range of streaming services

We're perfecting the patient experience - Stillwater Medical Center