Oh, phew: A Late Quartet is not bad.
I’ve read conflicting accounts of the film, and heard from an equal number of disappointed and happy people. I will place myself in the positive centre: aware that there’s not a huge deal in it, but glad I saw it, and absolutely thrilled that it was made.
The best thing about the film is indeed that it’s been made and that it is putting classical musicians and their lives into the mainstream interest. How perfect it is that a fashion and society columnists like Nathalie Atkinson is now writing love columns to the Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14? The TSO recently had a special fundraising screening of the film. Films like this, not too complicated, showing musicians leading comfortable Manhattan lives with some minor parental and love and friendship drama are probably the most successful cross-over enterprises. Actors who are both A-listers and indie royalty help enormously.
So here’s the story: the oldest member of the quartet, the cellist played by Christopher Walken, is diagnosed with Parkinson’s. The second violin (Philip Seymour Hoffman) sees this reshuffle as an opportunity to propose a revolving first chair with the current first violinist (Mark Ivanir). Hoffman’s violist wife (Catherine Keener) does not have his back on this, so in retribution for the many years of the second violin frustration he has an affair with a gorgeous younger acquaintance. Keener finds out, asks him to leave their apartment, in a later conversation revealing that she is not sure if she had ever really loved him. Their twenty-something daughter, on the other hand, has an affair with the first violin guy. Things come to blows, the future of the quartet in peril. It all ends well, with a dash of realism provided by the retiring Walken who gets to have a very moving farewell scene from the concert podium.
Admittedly, I went to see the film for the von Otter content. There is a peculiar distribution of it. In the flashback scene by Walken’s character Peter, two-thirds through the film, she is seen singing Marietta’s Lied for about four seconds. She appears to be wearing her regular clothes and hair, with some adorbs burgundy lipstick being the only concession to the film character makeup. Her recording of the song is played for considerably longer than that, while we observe the anguished Peter reminiscing.
But there is much more. In many sneaky ways, Otter is present throughout the film. From the very first scenes, she is seen in the background in the photos on the walls and the tables and nightstands in Peter’s apartment. This photo, with her actual husband’s face Photoshopped out and Walken’s put in, makes an appearance in the film. Walken/Peter cannot stop talking about her. It’s only been a year since she passed away, and his friends, who appear to have loved her as much as he did, join in his mourning. Keener’s character lauds at one point “Peter and Miriam” as the all-important early mentors. “She is still here, with you” is said several times during the film, including the final scene. The final words of the film are addressed to Miriam! She is the all-present, invisible character akin to Rebecca or Marie in Die tote Stadt. It’s a film that could have easily been made by an Otter fan, about Otter fandom. There are all these pictures and recordings! The fact that she is gone kick-starts the film.
For these, and a few other unexpected delights (Brentano String Quartet, or a twenty-something blonde character that is not patronizingly written!), A Late Quartet is well worth seeing.