You may find yourself initially chuckling to hear, over the opening score, Christopher Walken reciting from T.S. Elliot’s Four Quartets. Given his recent spate of lunkhead tough guy roles (Seven Psychopaths, Kill the Irishman), it almost sounds like a parody. But Walken’s lithe grace and intelligent concentration soon make you forget his gangster ways and completely buy him as an ailing, widowed cellist holding together this fictional string quartet. Sadly, he also has to anchor this clichéd melodrama, a film that does great injustice to the Beethoven it professes to adore.
Even A Late Quartet’s stellar supporting cast doesn’t help. Consider the great Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who plays a flawed second fiddle. He’s good, but Quartet is the kind of movie whose clichés flow directly from more clichés; he’s a second fiddle who wants to be the star.
Every emotional upheaval in this movie is telegraphed five minutes before it happens and there are few happy surprises. Nobody turns merciful, graceful, or even self-consciously smart against the stereotype assigned. But the music is beautiful. Beethoven’s “late” fugue-like Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 131, and Walken, who sadly gets the most predictable finale moment in the film, at least manage to convey an air of angry pride, perhaps pointed at a script that can only find shallow people with beauty at their fingertips scratching out a potboiler.