Director: Yaron Zilberman
Starring: Christopher Walken, Catherine Keener, Philip Seymour Hoffman
UK Release date: 5 April 2013
Certificate: 15 (105 mins)
This is a superb, graceful film about music and musicians. Director and co-writer, Yaron Zilberman, describes A Late Quartet as a way of examining family dynamics through his love and knowledge of chamber music. This is only his second feature film – his first was the acclaimed 2004 documentary, Watermarks, about a Jewish women’s swimming club – but there is no hint that Zilberman is an embryonic filmmaker. Here is a master at work – the casting is compelling, the acting is outstanding and, as you might expect, the music is divine!
The musicians of the Fugue Quartet are at the peak of their career, having performed together more than 3,000 times over 25 years and earned worldwide acclaim. They are planning their next series of concerts in which they will perform Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14, opus 131, a famously difficult piece that is played without pause between movements, causing the instruments to fall out of tune and challenging the musicians to work together. But the group is shaken when cellist and father figure, Peter Mitchell, played by Christopher Walken, is diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. He accepts the news with stoicism, and with quiet professionalism he raises the matter of securing a new cellist to replace him; his only concern is the Fugue’s continuation.
The other members of the Fugue cope less well with Peter’s diagnosis. Robert Gelbart (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is the Fugue’s second violinist. He is married to Catherine Keener’s Juliette, the viola player. Robert wishes the Fugue would take more risks, he is bored and un-stretched. He therefore seizes his chance to propose himself as first violin, which forces both his wife and the current first violin player, Daniel Lerner (Mark Ivanir), into a corner from which they both damn him with the backhanded compliment that he is the world’s best second violinist. This is the catalyst for Robert’s mid-life crisis and the Gelbarts’ marriage crisis. In the meantime, Daniel falls in love with his talented pupil, Alexandra (Imogen Poots), who happens to be Juliette and Robert’s daughter. In the vacuum left by the abdication of their leader, the Fugue struggles to survive as each of its members puts self-interest ahead of the group.
The plot could almost be seen as a farce revolving around a leadership crisis, ageing artistic egos and, in Robert’s case, what it means literally to play second fiddle. With snowy Manhattan as its backdrop, the film visually recalls Woody Allen’s gift for presenting modern life’s vanities and absurdities against fine cityscapes and cultural locations. But this film is much richer than any of Allen’s, and it seems as if much love and technical craft was lavished on the production. The actors all had two or more instrument tutors and it shows; their playing style and technique is totally convincing. The sound we hear is that of the Brentano String Quartet, but even so these actors must have had to ‘become’ musicians to play their characters with the level of musicianship that authenticity demands.
The portrayal of the early onset of Peter’s illness is delicately handled. That it is Parkinson’s disease that afflicts him is hugely poignant – we see his musician’s hands, strong as an athlete’s yet so sensitive, failing him; even his grip is unresponsive. But his self-composure and discipline enable him to focus on what is best for the Fugue even as his own body fails. He adopts a new mission even as his fellow musicians are falling apart.
The film is a showcase of the dedication, craft and egos of musicians, and an insight into the unarticulated rules followed by those who commit to playing together. It is a study of the tense and tender dynamics of a quartet, but most of all it is a lesson in leadership.
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