Friday, December 7, 2012

Failing to Hit the High Notes: A Late Quartet

Mark Ivanir, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener and Christopher Walken in A Late Quartet

There’s a significant difference between documentary and fictional films. Though both are constructed to tell stories, one has the advantage of truth, which can make your film more compelling if the story’s a real corker and if you’re a good director. The other must be rendered from life situations but play out convincingly on screen. But in terms of feeling, authenticity and emotion, the end result isn’t always equally effective. That’s certainly the case with A Late Quartet, a drama that doesn’t come close to reaching the impact of filmmaker Yaron Zilberman’s documentary debut Watermarks (2004).

Watermarks told the fascinating story of a champion Viennese Jewish swim team that was essentially exiled from the country by the Nazis in 1938 and what happened when they went back to Austria over sixty years later. It had it all: a little-known tale that dispelled stereotypes of Jews not being competent athletes, compelling subjects who riveted the screen, and a poignant resolution that reverberated after the credits were done. A Late Quartet has none of these welcome elements. In fact it’s a rather pedestrian, even simple story that isn’t elevated at all, despite its mostly top-notch cast.

The film’s title refers to a world famous New York-based chamber group, about to celebrate its 25th anniversary, and what occurs when they’re suddenly confronted with the news that their elder statesman Peter Mitchell (Christopher Walken) has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s and likely won’t be able to play with the string quartet for much longer. That unleashes long repressed resentments and jealousies among its members who either jockey for new positions in the group or try to hold on in the face of this tragic direction.

Mark Ivanir and Catherine Keener
Truth be told, it’s not an especially interesting plot, except for the not-exactly revelatory fact that musicians who work closely together don’t necessarily know what’s really going in the other’s lives, or in their thoughts, even if they are married to each other as two of the quartet, Juliette (Catherine Keener) and Robert Gelbart (Philip Seymour Hoffman) are. But Zilberman and co-writer Seth Grossman don’t do their talented cast any justice, saddling them with rather paper-thin roles, closer to types than fleshed out creations. Robert is an impulsive sort, who resents the group’s founding member, Israeli-born Daniel Lerner (Mark Ivanir) and his position as second violinist to Daniel’s’ first violinist. Juliette, who was essentially adopted by Peter and his late wife Miriam when she was a teenager, is having trouble facing up to the reality of her mentor’s illness. And Peter, though determined to continue on as a musician and teacher, isn’t sure how much longer he can keep doing what he has done for most of his life. None of these characters, or their fates, is as moving as Zilberman seems to think they are.

Starkly put, Zilberman lacks the ability to make his film come alive despite the beautiful classical music that permeates the movie. (Beethoven’s very complex and difficult Op. 31  in seven movements is at the centre of the action but it’s a rather obvious metaphor for the difficulties faced by the quartet.) Hoffman and Keener have a couple of good moments where they bounce off each other as the Gelbarts' marriage hits some rocky shoals, but their leaden dialogue and Zilberman’s heavy-handed orchestration of their scenes undoes them. He also flubs the supposedly emotional scenes with the couple’s daughter Alexandra (Imogen Poots) who is stuck between her two opposing parents, but doesn’t register strongly in her own right. And while it’s nice to see Walken play normal for a change, his is not all that fascinating a role. For the most part, he’s given little to do but look anguished. The Ukrainian-born Ivanir’s performance is a stiff one, something I’ve noticed among so many actors whose first language is not English, a reality that forces them to concentrate too much on their words at the expense of their emoting. (See also Gérard Depardieu in his various English language roles – Green Card, or 1492.Or Penélope Cruz in Vanilla Sky or Nine.) Zilberman also gives short shrift to Ivanir, the only unknown actor among the leads, especially since Daniel is the only member of the quarter who isn’t given his due by being interviewed or excerpted in the ‘documentary’ celebrating the group that runs as a motif through the film. Even Wallace Shawn, who pops up as another musician, is wasted in a minor role. And Zilberman’s various New York settings are mere pictorial backdrops to the tale and never fully function as the basis for the rich fifth character he wants the city to play.

A Late Quartet deserves some kudos for its classical music setting and its focus on older protagonists, neither a staple of American movies, but though the sounds on tap are first rate, as drama the film consistently misses the high notes.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses and his course, Intelligent Art and Meticulous Craft: The Social Cinema of Sydney Lumet, at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre (Bloor and Spadina, Toronto), concluded this past Monday.

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