News of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death Sunday struck me pretty hard, so, to cope, I opted to watch one of his films that I hadn’t seen — and it was like pouring salt on an open wound.
Hoffman stars in “A Late Quartet,” which examines the group dynamics of four career musicians, when Peter (Christopher Walken) is diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
In their first scene together, Robert (Hoffman) suggests they play this year’s concert by memory to Peter’s encouragement and first-string violinist Daniel’s (Mark Ivanir) rejection.
“It’s a risk,’ he says, and as first violin, he seems to have the final say. Robert’s wife, Juliet (Catherine Keener) agrees, and the tone is set.
They’re all civil, soft-spoken and refined — as I would imagine many string musicians would be after 25 years together, but the heart of this story kicks off as the quartet begins to unravel.
Robert and Juliet’s marriage is increasingly tense and I questioned if the quartet was the only thing keeping them together. Juliet threatens to quit if Peter retires, and Daniel approaches everything with a pragmatic rigidity. Watching everything go downhill, I hadn’t yet seen what they were fighting for. Sweet move from screenwriters Seth Grossman and Yaron Zilberman as this made the shift to magic and meaning that much more rewarding.
During a trip to purchase horse hair for a violin bow, Daniel explains to his apprentice Alexandra (Imogen Poots) why playing in a quartet is better than going solo. “It’s the only way to find meaningful interpretations,” Daniel says.
“The greatest composers, when they wanted to express their most sincere thoughts, feelings, dig deep into their souls, always this four, always the quartet.” It was a surprising insight from musically militant Daniel, and it’s evident that playing music elevates his existence as well as the rest of them.
I loved seeing Walken reclaim his dramatic roots, and Keener played painfully subdued well. Poots fully exacted youth and musical genius, but the real heartbreaker was Hoffman. In a scene opposite Keener, they’re at an auction house and he confronts her about their marriage. I was in awe of how he executed emotion with the tone of one syllable. “A Late Quartet” is worth watching, if only to see a master at work in this rewarding character study and look at how music can further our humanity.
Available: Amazon Prime, Netflix Instant.
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