Tuesday, March 19, 2013

It Might As Well Be Strings (Movie Review: A Late Quartet)

I have been lamenting, to anyone who would listen, that lately it has been very difficult to find movies for "grownups."  For sure, we are not the most profitable demographic, but please, don't just abandon us. After the Holiday "serious movie" season, I cannot think of any 2013 movie release that has challenged and entertained me. So I take to the video section and find "A Late Quartet," which was screened at last year's Toronto Film Festival and get a limited release last November. It somehow never caught on with the mainstream audience. 

My first impression is this is a New York City kind of movie. I could imagine it being shown at Loews Lincoln Center, and because of  great buzz from a New York Times rave, every screening would be sold out. I imagine there would be a great cardboard cut out of the Times review right by the theater lobby, and as viewers leave they would all gather and read the Times review before venturing out in the cold November air. This is just my imagination, of course. The movie photographs New York City beautifully, capturing it in the midst of winter, a metaphor perhaps of a winter of discontent?

"A Late Quartet" is worth sitting through if only for one reason: Christopher Walken's performance. We all know him from his crazy performances, and his winking salute to those performances. But in here he gives a subtle performance that is a slow boil. In the beginning of the movie, his character gets diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease, and he has to deal with it emotionally, and professionally, as he is the leader of The Fugue String Quartet. The rest of the quartet, played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Martin Ivanir, and Catherine Keenan react differently, resulting in soap opera plot points. But because of the dignity in their performances, though, the melodrama never gets too excessive. There is a heartbreaking scene wherein Walken remembers his  wife, played by soprano  Anne Sofie von Otter, and it perfectly shows love when lost.

The emotional and musical heart of the movie is Beethoven's String Quartet in C#m, or Opus 131, one of the composer's last works. The whole piece is meant to be played without any interruptions. It's very intense, and while it's photographed well, it is very obvious that the actors are not the ones playing the instruments (It is by the Brentano String Quartet) I am not going to pretend that I am very familiar with the piece, but now this makes me want to dig out my recordings to see if I have this piece somewhere in my collection, and I suspect I do.

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