Hoffman’s passion & humanity makes what could be a dull story of classical musicians fascinating.
A Late Quartet is a must-see for any fans of Philip Seymour Hoffman. It is also a movie of stuffy white people in rooms discussing – and then occasionally playing – classical music for nearly two hours. The titular quartet is known as “The Fugue,” a truly ridiculous name for a group that only plays compositions that are at least a couple centuries old. They’re led by cellist Peter (Christopher Walken), elevated by precise first violinist Daniel (Mark Ivanir), and supported by Juliette (Catherine Keener) and her husband Robert (Hoffman), violist and second violinist, respectively.
In the opening moments Peter is diagnosed with Parkinson’s, and quickly decides his retirement is imminent. Will the quartet fall apart? The seismic shift in the group seems to awaken something in Robert. He never really wanted to play second violin in the first place.
“Seriously, the second and first violin aren’t hierarchical, they’re just different roles,” Robert tells a friend, unconvincingly. “I pull it all together. That’s my job,” lands a little closer to home. It’s almost too easy to see A Late Quartet using Hoffman’s pedigree as a supporting character actor to inform Robert’s discontent, as if the performer himself aches to become a leading man.
But by 2012, Hoffman had starred in an impressive assortment of movies: Love Liza, Owning Mahoney, Jack Goes Boating, Capote, and Synecdoche, New York. Those last two most clearly belong in conversation with A Late Quartet: Hoffman was certainly no stranger to dramatizing the creative process and playing unhappy artists, though Robert feels particularly close to his literal, lived experience as a stubborn, perfectionist New Yorker. In other words, it’s Robert who yearns for center stage – I doubt P.S.H. wanted to star in more movies of Hunger Games scale, or even more movies in general. By his mid-forties, he’d already won an Oscar and received endless critical acclaim (plus, it was his work on-stage, where he regularly took lead parts, that really mattered to him).
So instead of playing himself, Hoffman simply understands Robert. He grasps his inherent insecurity, and the comfort he takes in being a team player. He knows how difficult it would be for Robert to push himself out of the second violinist’s chair, and how much it stings when his wife doesn’t encourage this evolution. As written, Robert’s dysfunction comes off perfectly reasonable – he is both content and frustrated by the life he leads. But it is Hoffman who balances these desires, and finds the likable person beneath all the contradictions and jagged edges.
And Robert’s not always easy to like. After his bid to alternate into first chair gets rejected, he promptly sleeps with a woman who isn’t his wife. Waking up on his couch the next morning, he barely has time to internalize his shame before Juliette figures out where he was the night before. Hoffman’s curt absence of warmth as he pushes Keener away so clearly communicates that he’s not mad at her – he’s mad at himself.
While A Late Quartet cast Hoffman in a role he could immediately recognize, its true value is granting him a character on the edges of restraint. Hoffman knew how to hold back, how to use his screen-time to imply an interiority without a script that spells everything out. When we first meet Robert, Hoffman works in this range – but this actor also knew how to go loud, how to get angry in a convincing sense (the phrase “Pig fuck!” comes to mind).
It’s almost too easy to see A Late Quartet using Hoffman’s pedigree as a supporting character actor to inform Robert’s discontent, as if the performer himself aches to become a leading man.
So with the quartet in flux and that life he’s been holding together now falling apart, Robert blows a gasket and explodes at Daniel, telling him “Practicing excessively doesn’t make your playing perfect, it actually sucks the life right out of it. It’s rigid and monotonous and self-loving and… safe.” Hoffman doesn’t yell or rush the rant. He lets the disappointment wash over his words, causing them to cut deeper than mere rage ever could.
As someone without much interest in classical music, I went in expecting to tune out A Late Quartet. But the passion Hoffman finds in Robert – the passion Robert is rediscovering, the passion to create work that is exciting and meaningful and new – resonated with me. I wanted to write something, I wanted to perform somewhere. There aren’t that many other movies that have given me this feeling, all the more heartbreaking considering Hoffman turned in this performance just a few years before he passed.
The film around Hoffman occasionally drags – there’s sort-of an upper limit to the excitement of this material, even as co-writer/director Yaron Zilberman teams with two frequent collaborators of David Lynch, cinematographer Frederic Elmes and composer Angelo Badalamenti. The main love-triangle becomes a love-pentagon, but these missteps are mostly minimal. Within Hoffman’s oeuvre, I’d say A Late Quartet falls just a notch below The Savages, another well-constructed drama for adults that allowed the actor to play a well-rounded, occasionally prickly, human being. If you appreciate Philip Seymour Hoffman, what sounds better than that?
A Late Quartet Trailer:
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