Music to the Ears!

A Late Quartet
(USA, 105 min.)
Dir. Yaron Zilberman, Writ. Yaron Zilberman, Seth Grossman.
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Christopher Walken, Mark Ivanir, Imogen Poots.
A Late Quartet is not to be confused with Quartet. The latter, which made my list of the top ten films of 2012, has much in common with the former: chords of anger and infidelity ripple through a quartet of friends/musicians as their life’s work culminates in a single performance. Both films reveal the difficulties that aging brings when the inevitable hiccups of growing old force unwanted decrescendos on the talents of a great musician. In spite of their similarities, though, the two Quartets could not be more different. For one thing, A Late Quartet is all about strings while Quartet (no Late) is about a troupe of opera singers. Likewise, one film is American and one film is British. Finally, and most notably, A Late Quartet is a modest, mature drama while Quartet is a sprightly, crowd-pleasing comedy. If Quartet is a fine glass of well-aged bubbly, then A Late Quartet is like a good round of ten-year-old scotch. It’s great if you’re in the mood to work out all its tastes and textures.

The analogy might explain why classical music sits so well with stuffy scotch drinkers. A fine piece of Beethoven might not be for all tastes these days. However, if one engages with it, gets in tune with its melodic intricacies, and lets it breathe properly, it yields quite the reward. Regardless of the grasp one has for classical music (or scotch) going in to A Late Quartet, this dramatic debut by Yaron Zilberman skillfully ensures that audiences will appreciate the nuance and dexterity with which music and films are made.

The film begins with a string quartet, called the Fugue Quartet, sitting down before a packed audience. The musicians—played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Christopher Walken, and Mark Ivanir—look up from their music stands and assess one another before they strike a chord. The film then flashes back to the preparations that brought the quartet to its climactic performance.

The tensions of a quarter-century of teamwork hit their pitch when their cellist, Peter (Walken), reveals to the group that he is experiencing early symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. The uncontrollable tremors of Parkinson’s are perhaps the worst fate that can befall a skilled musician who has built a life by evoking emotions through the skillful movements of his hands. Walken gives a virtuoso performance as the ailing Peter, and he offers some of the film’s most poignant notes in a few key monologues (which are the actor’s trademark) and a touching silent moment (which he does even better) in which the cellist listens to past recordings and reminisces about the times gone by.

Peter’s Parkinson’s, however, is not what ails the Fugue Quartet. His looming departure opens up a series of tensions and rivalries that have lain dormant as the quartet worked together to ensure harmony. Part of playing in a quartet requires that musicians put their own artistic flair in check with that of the group; the inevitability of such synchronization, though, means that one member’s craft dominates that of the group.

Such a rift erupts when Robert (Hoffman) admits that he is tired of playing second fiddle to Daniel (Ivanir) and thinks that the two violinists should alternative first chair. In turn, Robert’s wife, and the quartet’s violist, Juliette (Catherine), is forced to take sides. A Late Quartet taps in to the inescapable egoism that looms throughout the arts, and it treats artistic license as if it’s betrayal. The film pairs such decisions with adultery, but it’s far before anyone has sex that an infidelity plays itself out before our eyes.

Hoffman and Keener make strong partners (and rivals) in the quartet. It’s nice to see the actors working together again after Capote. Like Walken, they give fine, mature work by imbuing the written work with authentic emotion, much like Robert and Juliette do when tackling Beethoven’s Opus. Ivanir, however, is somewhat eclipsed by his three heavyweight co-stars (plus a strong performance by Imogen Poots as Hoffman and Keener’s cold, spoiled daughter). Unlike Robert and Juliette, Daniel is a far more calculated player. He relies on the beat and precision of the notes to do the work for him. He’s a character written in pianissimo, unlike the other three who range from mezzo-forte to the higher end of the scale. Still, the four actors create a nice harmony together and they bring a richness to the film’s artful, yet natural, script.

A Late Quartet gradually builds to the fateful concert and re-contextualizes the quartet with the piece they play. Peter explains how the composition, Beethoven’s Opus 131, is meant to be played attacca, which means that the seven movements of the piece are to be played without a break. One section of the opus carries over into the next, and the players build their music with tangible emotion as the notes and harmonies inevitably fall out of tune as the musicians play with feverish continuity. As the quartet plays the film’s final number, the music reveals to the audience how the lives of the musicians followed a similar series of movements, which became fraught with tension as the instrumentalists played attacca for twenty-five years.

Zilberman ends the film with a bold overture. Beethoven’s Opus 131 frames the film in an astute musical parenthesis in which old ghosts are battled, hearts are broken, and lives are altered. The musical notes, and faces of the performers, have a different tenor when the film starts the music again at the film’s end. A smart, subtle ending—a fermata of sorts—brings together a lesson in classical music with a master class in screen acting. A Late Quartet is music to the ears, and to the eyes of moviegoers, it is smart, artful fare.

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

A Late Quartet screened in Ottawa at The ByTowne.
It has an encore performance at The Mayfair (Bank) beginning February 1st.