Lately we’ve grown used to seeing Christopher Walken in comedic roles—almost veering into self-parody—so it is refreshing to see him not rely on tricks and produce a layered, heartfelt and emotionally rich work. In “A Late Quartet” he delivers his most poignant performance in years.
Walken is Peter Mitchell, cellist and senior member of The Fugue, a world famous string quartet. For twenty-fives years and 3000 performances he has helped to define chamber music with first violinist Daniel Lerner (Mark Ivanir), second violinist Robert Gelbart (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Juliette Gelbart (Catherine Keener) on viola. When Peter is diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and decides to hang up his cello, the Fugue friends are thrown into turmoil.
Walken’s illness and retirement are the catalyst for the film’s look at how people deal with change, but it also provides the heart. Many of the situations are melodramatic—an affair, an inappropriate romance among them—but it isn’t so much about the events themselves as it is about how change affects people.
Each of the three remaining musicians become different people once they have been cut loose from the watchful eye of their friend and mentor. The overall effect is more interesting than the mechanisms of it. The affair and the plot machinery that keeps the story going are there simply to serve great performances from a powerhouse cast.
Hoffman, Keener, Ivanir and Imogen Poots as Robert and Juliette’s college-age daughter Alexandra are uniformly strong, but the maestro here is Walken.
Subtle, nuanced and heartbreaking, his portrayal of a man confronting old age and an uncertain future is first class, a virtuoso turn.
“A Late Quartet” could have been a downer film about classical music and mortality, but instead it’s funny, melancholy and touching.