Four parts of a musical melodrama
Film of the Week: A Late Quartet (15A, limited release, 106 minutes) ****
Published 05/04/2013 | 18:00
Watching A Late Quartet is a bit like sipping a glass of your favourite Bordeaux: you know exactly what to expect but that doesn't diminish the pleasure of drinking it one little bit.
Directed by Yaron Ziberman and co-written by Ziberman and Seth Grossman, this urbane and meaty drama is set in the rarified world of classical music and unites the formidable talents of Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener and Mark Ivanir.
They are the four members of the 'Fugue String Quartet', a celebrated ensemble that's been touring the world for 25 years.
They're just tuning up for a triumphant anniversary concert in New York when their leader, Peter Mitchell (Walken), drops a bombshell. A recurring tremor in his hands has been diagnosed as early stage Parkinson's: he will be forced to retire, and the quartet will have to find a replacement cellist. This shocking news sends the other musicians into a tailspin, and reveals long-suppressed animosities and tensions.
The quartet's viola player, Juliette Gelbart (Keener), is married to the second violinist, Robert Gelbart (Hoffman), but still has a fond attachment to Daniel Lerner (Mark Ivanir), the first violinist.
Robert seems to sense this, and against both his and the group's best interests, announces that he'd like to play lead violin parts now and then. Daniel, a brilliant control freak with intimacy issues, is still reeling from this body blow when he finds himself falling for Robert and Juliette's daughter, Alexandra (Imogen Poots), a talented violinist who's so annoyed with her often absent parents that she starts dating Daniel to get back at them.
All of which makes A Late Quartet sound like an episode of EastEnders set during a rehearsal by the Berlin Philharmonic. For all its melodrama, however, Ziberman's film is elegantly constructed, musically literate and has one or two serious things to say.
At the heart of the film is Opus 131, Beethoven's String Quartet in C Sharp Minor, a formidable piece in seven increasingly demanding movements that are traditionally performed without a pause. In a way A Late Quartet is similarly constructed, and the group's various squabblings build slowly towards a memorable crescendo.
It's all very satisfying, if at times a little wordy and overly neat, and though it wasn't, it feels like it was adapted from a play.
There are some lovely scenes, moments of Woody Allen-esque wit, a clever balance between laughter and pathos and some really terrific acting. Keener and Hoffman bounce off each other most effectively as the tuneful but unhappy couple, English actress Poots is very good as their terrifyingly self-possessed daughter, and Walken is quite magnificent as the battered but benevolent Peter.
In a recent interview, the often tragically typecast Walken described how filmmakers will rewrite or "Walkenize" a part once he's taken it, to make it more off-the-wall and eccentric.
In A Late Quartet, however, he is allowed to play a relatively ordinary person, and acts the socks off his distinguished colleagues with a wonderfully still and measured portrayal of a man confronted with his own mortality.
The film's beautiful music is provided mainly by the Brentano String Quartet, and the actors' attempts to mime along to the tape work pretty well for the most part.
Revealingly, while Hoffman learned the violin in order to look more convincing, Walken didn't bother and was happy to fake it.
And yet it's Hoffman who ends up overdoing it.
Director: Yaron Ziberman Stars: Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Mark Ivanir
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