Age is a funny thing. When you’re young, you’re constantly anticipating the future, fantasizing about what is to come, both personally and professionally. For us, the future is out of reach. We can envision ourselves rising to our full potential, but we don’t yet possess the experience needed to get us there. On the other hand, people in their 50s, 60s, and 70s are forced to accept their own mortality while grappling with regret. Has complacency bested ambition? And if so, can we overcome our limitations and achieve greatness, or even just vindication?
Aging and regret are at the forefront of “A Late Quartet,” a film about an accomplished string quartet facing uncertainty after its cellist, Peter (Christoper Walken), is diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Rather than continue to play with the quartet, Peter decides to retire after one last concert. His longtime friends and fellow quartet members react differently to the news, with Juliette (Catherine Keener) taking the news the hardest. Her husband and the quartet’s second violinist, Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman), considers this shift as his opportunity to become first violinist, a position he has pined for since the quartet’s formation over two decades ago. The first violinist, Daniel (Mark Ivanir), is not only tasked with finding Peter’s replacement, but he has also offered to teach Juliette and Robert’s daughter Alexandra (Imogen Poots), a burgeoning violinist. The quartet’s relationship weakens as personal and professional differences become more evident.
Christopher Walken’s performance as a gifted cellist suffering from Parkinson’s disease is subtle but sweet. Unlike the other members, Peter is focused on bettering the quartet, which is why he attends Parkinson’s support groups, takes daily medications, undergoes physical therapy, and practices for hours on end. Now in his mid-70s and widowed, Peter accepts the challenges facing him while thinking ahead to the future. His diagnosis is heartbreaking to hear, especially when his passion and livelihood hinge on his ability to use his hands. At times it seems as if Peter is prepared to give up, but his love for his late wife and the quartet motivate him to push forward.
Meanwhile, Juliette and Robert argue over his desire to play first violin. Robert’s ambition coupled with his self-doubt lead to a regrettable night. While not always the most likeable, Robert is the most sympathetic. In the beginning of their career, Robert was content with playing second violinist, but as the years pass and the compositions remain the same, he becomes unhappy, understandably so. Not achieving fulfillment in my career is one of my greatest fears, which is why I find it so easy to relate to Robert. He might be a scoundrel, but his waywardness is born out of his dissatisfaction at home and at work. Hoffman, who is an actor I admire for always taking risks, is able to humanize Robert without making him seem weak or overtly selfish. The heated exchanges between Hoffman and Keener’s characters are sometimes tough watch. Their marriage, although stable, is passionless. For the most part, it seems as though their marriage cannot survive without the quartet.
Even now, Daniel remains a mystery to me. His perfectionism is to be both admired and loathed. Unlike Robert, Daniel is devoid of spontaneity; however, he possesses an unknown quality that makes his playing superb. It is not until he begins a May-December relationship with Alexandra, Juliette and Robert’s daughter, that he’s able to see beyond his bow. It doesn’t take long for Daniel to become infatuated with the idea of falling in love, so much so that he is willing to let the quartet dissolve for the sake of remaining with Alexandra. Despite the age difference, the relationship between Alexandra and Daniel is a believable one. Daniel is mature, talented, and somewhat unattainable, while Alexandra is naïve and strong-willed. However, their relationship is doomed to fail because of Daniel and Robert’s already strained partnership.
Regardless of their personal squabbles, music is the quartet’s religion, which is something I find incredibly inspiring. “A Late Quartet” is very character-driven, but it works. My favorite scene takes place between Alexandra and Daniel when they’re driving upstate. In the car, Alexandra listens to a piece performed by the quartet, detailing why every role in instrumental. That scene sums up nicely why it’s so difficult for the quartet to quit itself; none of them are whole without the others.