Precarious Balance – ‘Late Quartet’ has melodrama aplenty, but also a great Walken performance

Christopher Walken has become such a beloved figure in Western culture, with his wild eyes and imitate-able voice — I’m betting that at least one of your friends, or maybe you, dear reader, can do a great Walken impression — that one can forget how he got to this position. So “Late Quartet,” for all its faults, mostly in the script, serves as a good reminder of his acting skills.

Mr. Walken plays Peter Mitchell, cellist for the Fugue Quartet, a tight-knit (and highly strung) ensemble that is celebrating its 25th year. On second violin and viola respectively, we have the husband-wife team of Robert (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and Juliette (Catherine Keener), and on first violin, and determining the sound of the quartet, there is Daniel (Mark Ivanir), who also instructs Robert and Juliette’s daughter, Alexandra (Imogen Poots).

All is well and good until Peter is diagnosed with the early stages of Parkinson’s, which effectively puts a definite date to the end of his career. But can they make it for one more season, if the drugs and therapy help? And will bringing in a new cellist — Peter recommends Nina (Nina Lee, who does not appear until the end) — upset this delicate balance of personalities?

The insular world of the string quartet, where four egos must combine into one organism, made for a fascinating play in Michael Hollinger’s “Opus” (which played at the Ensemble Theatre last year), and “Late Quartet” mines similar ground. Scriptwriter and director Yaron Zilberman sees the quartet as family members who have suppressed all their ill will, until one event brings everything out into the open. And it’s pretty soapy (as in soap opera) stuff that bubbles up. We know Robert is going to have an affair with his jogging partner, Pilar (Liraz Charhi), from their first scene, as she provocatively stretches against a Central Park railing and shows off her particular assets. And the passive-aggressive Daniel begins an affair with Alexandra, Juliette’s daughter, who later has some choice angry words for her absentee mother. I was waiting for an expensive violin to be broken, but it didn’t come to that.

On the other hand, we have Mr. Walken, who often seems to be in another, subtler movie. Instead of speechifying and acting, we get to gaze upon his aging face and read emotions as they sweep across his eyes. We know way more about what he’s going through from his silence than from the yelling, screaming and even punching of the other characters. However, Ms. Poots gives one of those performances in an underwritten role that should be taken note of — hopefully she’ll get cast in a breakthrough film.

Also enjoyable are the brief moments in which we see the quartet actually going about the business of practicing and working. Mr. Zilberman’s documentary background shows here, and the actors do their best work. Ms. Keener has more to do here than she did in the recent unfunny “The Oranges,” but again she’s playing an icy, sad woman in a falling-apart marriage. Somebody please give her a chance to be happy once in a while.

The Beethoven work that the quartet premieres at the end hardly gets a look-in past the opening bars, but we do learn a bit about it: how it contains seven movements instead of the usual four, how they all should be played together without stopping, how it reflected Beethoven’s encroaching mortality, and how Schubert requested it as the last piece of music he’d ever hear.

We learn all these things from Mr. Walken’s character, and it makes one wish the movie was full of more scenes like this. After a particularly bitter fight during a practice, Mr. Walken’s Peter orders them all out of his residence. One wishes the same thing for the film.

‘Late Quartet’
* * 1/2
Starring: Christopher Walken, Catherine Keener, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Mark Ivanir
Length: 105 minutes
Rating: R for language and some sexuality
Playing at: Plaza de Oro

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