Nothing can save us from shopping at this time of year, but at least there’s a chance of ducking inside a multiplex while the mallrats we love most go wild. In desperate times, almost any movie will do, but if you’re a sensitive soul you pray for one of those rare Christmas-movies-for-grownups. Not Christmassy, as in red velvet and silver bells, but something on the quiet side, with some top actors working from a script distinguished by wit, intelligence and wry observation.
This week, we in Honolulu are lucky to have just such a refuge in A Late Quartet, about a famous string quartet that busts more than a few strings en route to its 25th anniversary season. If that sounds too quiet, fear not Pulp Fiction fans–Christopher Walken turns in yet another memorable performance as cellist Peter, the oldest in the quartet by a couple decades and newly diagnosed with Parkinson’s. His three prized students from a quarter century ago are now grizzled veterans, exquisitely attuned to each other’s playing. Walken’s tremors set off earthquakes.
Philip Seymour Hoffman, as Robert, sees Walken’s inevitable departure as his cue to finally break out from his role as second violin to Mark Ivanir’s obsessive, hollow-eyed Daniel, who has dominated by outworking everyone else. Catherine Keener, as Robert’s wife, Juliette, is violist and finds her emotional center in the Quartet–not Robert, whom she treats like a second fiddle. Their ethereal daughter, Alexandra (impeccable ingenue Imogen Poots) is also a violinist and student of Peter, as well as a lifelong student of the group that robbed her of her parents seven months out of every year. This does not prevent her from throwing herself at one of the players.
The film captures perfectly the fervid mood inside musical groups, and there’s even a surprise in store for those young-uns who think rappers and rock ‘n’ rollers have a monopoly on lust.
Passion is at the heart of the movie–for music, for composers, for instrumental technique and, not least, for hot sex with highly wrought performers. And then, as sometimes happens, lust grows into love. A Late Quartet is about that, most of all.
All the performances are very good, with new-to-me Mark Ivanir embodying the commanding persona of a first violinist. Hoffman has the hardest role, with the largest range of moods, and his humanity grounds the film. Keener is heartbreaking as a woman who sometimes feels she has never lived emotionally except through her instrument. And Walken–what can I say? As I watched him deal with his impending helplessness and death, I remembered seeing him tackle a similar theme on a snowy December day in New York City. He was Gabriel in a stage adaptation of James Joyce’s The Dead, and just as he broke hearts in that most elegiac of stories, he broke mine here.