Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: To honor the life and career of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, we single out some of our favorite performances.
A Late Quartet (2012)
One of my favorite Philip Seymour Hoffman performances of recent years was in a movie that ended up making very little impact outside of its showings on the film-festival circuit: 2012’s A Late Quartet. I remember reading a blurb about it after one such festival and noted (incorrectly) that it starred Hoffman and Catherine Keener as a violin-playing couple. Intrigued by the mini Capote/Synecdoche reunion, the premise, and the three and a half-star rating from Roger Ebert, I sought it out.
The Fugue, a string quartet that has been performing professionally for more than 25 years, has its delicate balance disrupted when the cellist, Peter (played by Christopher Walken), announces that he’s suffering from the early stages of Parkinson’s disease. If the quartet is to continue, they need a new cellist, the first personnel change since the group’s inception. The other players include Mark Ivanir as the perfectionist first violinist, Daniel; Hoffman as the accommodating second violinist, Robert; and Keener as the group’s viola player, Juliette.
Robert and Juliette are married with a college-age daughter (Imogen Poots), who also plays the violin and is a pupil to both Peter and Daniel. It’s clear early in the proceedings that this marriage is in trouble. Daniel and Juliette have a history, and Robert has grown accustomed to never pushing back when his opinion differs from Daniel’s. In a conversation following Peter’s news, Robert suggests to Juliette the impending changes offer the possibility of shaking up the group dynamics a bit more (and give him the chance to take the first violinist part on some pieces). It’s important to note that Robert isn’t so much an opportunist as a talent who never realized his potential, because he voluntarily placed himself in the passenger seat for 25 years. Yet Juliette thinks the quartet should end. She and Peter have an adoptive father-daughter relationship that predates the existence of the quartet, and she’d rather take care of him than continue. When Robert presses Juliette to make an effort to see things his way, she dismisses him with the faint praise that he’s a great second violinist, but doesn’t have the stuff to take first. And that’s when things really start to fall apart.
Walken is the elder statesman throughout; he’s the quartet’s founder and is older than the other members by at least two decades, but he plays the cello. A quartet’s “leader” is almost always its first violinist, as that instrument’s performance is most often the star, with the other three instruments bolstering that part. The narrative thread holding all these elements together is Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14, Op. 131. Much is made of the delicate balance and complicated relationships inherent in a string quartet (particularly one performing this piece), and these dynamics bleed into the lives of the players.
A Late Quartet isn’t perfect. There are several points when Imogen Poots’ American accent is tenuous at best. Having Keener overhear a child reciting Ogden Nash’s famous poem “Old Men” comes across as a little on the nose. And the only one who even comes close to approximating the look, posture, and movements of an actual string musician is, surprisingly enough, Walken—the actor playing a character whose physical facilities are failing him.
While it’s a bit light on plot and heavy on musical metaphor, this is nonetheless a delightful film about the power of art and family and love. It conveys successfully what Dustin Hoffman’s film, Quartet tried and failed to. When Walken lays down his cello in the middle of a concert, indicating his official resignation, and the other three musicians put away their sheet music to play by heart, these are huge decisions and seismic changes. When they launch into the film’s final performance of the piece, it’s with such energy and optimism, it’s clear that it is indeed a happy ending. To take such a small story and turn it into this huge emotional journey is a credit to the screenplay, the director (Yaron Zilberman), and these performers.
The main actors are giving such understated performances, it isn’t immediately clear how much pain each of these characters is in (particularly the daughter), nor how deeply they all love one another. In the one scene where all the anger, all that latent rage, that Hoffman’s Robert has been holding onto for decades finally erupts, the catharsis is palpable. And that was the power of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s talent: the incredible empathy he provoked with his performances. Whether he was portraying a closeted gay man in love with a porn star, or an increasingly desperate transgender woman, or a theater director who couldn’t stop creating an ever more intricate world, or a philosophizing rock critic, or an effete writing sensation looking to makeover his career, it just didn’t matter. He was every single one of those people, and for however long he was on-screen, so were you.
Availability: A Late Quartet is available on DVD, to rent or purchase through the major digital outlets, and to stream via Netflix’s Watch Instantly.