Though director Yaron Zilberman’s first feature A Late Quartet often looks like another episode of “As the World Turns,” or perhaps more apropos, “The Young and the Restless,” its nuanced performances are always dignified and deeply affecting and its look at the discipline it takes to become a successful music group, classical or otherwise, is revealing. Co-authored by Zilberman and Seth Grossman, The Fugue, a New York-based string quartet that has played over 3,000 concerts throughout the world, faces a crisis when its oldest member, cellist Peter Mitchell (Christopher Walken), is diagnosed with early stage Parkinson’s disease and is unsure how long he will be able to continue playing.
After a few rehearsals that do not go well, Peter, still grieving from the death of his wife, Miriam, a mezzo-soprano, tells the rest of the quartet the news that threatens the stability of the ensemble that has been together for twenty-five years. Change does not come easily and here it is made even more poignant by a montage of photographs that shows each player when they were young. It was obvious when the group was first formed by first violinist Daniel Lerner that Peter, thirty years older that the rest, would someday have to relinquish his chair, but the reason for his leaving could not have been anticipated.
After the group receives the news of Peter’s illness, signs of hidden resentment begin to surface. The second violin, Robert Gelbart (Philip Seymour Hoffman), asks to share the first violin with the moody and withdrawn Daniel (Mark Ivanir), but Robert’s wife, violist Juliette (Catherine Keener) tells her husband she does not think his talent measures up. The criticism hurts and a one-night stand with his exotic jogging partner (Liraz Charhi), puts his long relationship with Juliette in jeopardy. Subsequent events, including a romance between Daniel and Robert’s daughter Alexandra (Imogen Poots), threaten to tear apart what remains of the quartet’s emotional ties.
Christopher Walken stands out as the stricken cellist and his performance shows a different side to his character than has been evident in the stereotypical roles he has been playing. Suffering is written on his face yet his dignity in the face of unwanted change is inspiring. Hoffman delivers his usual powerful but understated performance and, though his actions seem immature, we can see the frustration that has been building up over the years, literally playing second fiddle to Daniel. The rest of the cast is also stellar including the unheralded Ivanir, and an impassioned scene between mother and daughter (Keener and Poots) has a strong impact.
While A Late Quartet is framed by rehearsals and snippets of performances of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14, Opus 131, his most mystical and complex work (performed by the Brentano String Quartet), the film misses an opportunity to educate the viewer about the composer or the work. Peter tells his class to blame Beethoven, not him, for having to play the piece’s seven movements without a break, intimating that Beethoven had it in for aspiring musicians. What might have been conveyed, however, is that the seven movements are unbroken because they display a unity of conception far beyond works artificially divided into slow and fast movements.
As described by Author J.W.N. Sullivan, the Beethoven 14th Quartet is characteristic of “the mystic vision to which everything appears unified in the light of one fundamental experience, a revelation of existence as seen from the vantage point of a higher consciousness.” Though A Late Quartet deals with the mundane struggles of life, the realization that everything must come to an end, and the tenuous balance between the individual and the whole, the ultimate willingness of the players to subordinate personal concerns to a larger vision is what Beethoven’s life was about and, though marred by melodrama, the film also mirrors that vision, even if it fails to make the connection.