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A Late Quartet

November 3, 2012
A Late Quartet

A string quartet provides an interesting structure.  Four performers, each bringing their own particular skills and style, delicately balanced against each other.  Yaron Zilberman’s A Late Quartet presents four accomplished actors, each with their own particular skills and style, along with some talented accompanists, to tell what amounts to an intimate family drama.  Subtle and nuanced, and yet with wild swoops of drama, this is — by intention — the cinematic equivalent of the best chamber music.

The Fugue quartet has been playing together for twenty-five years, since forming out of Juilliard.  As they start to prepare for the new season Peter (Christopher Walken), the cellist and by far the eldest member, has difficulty with his vibrato.  An examination by his doctor (Madhur Jaffrey) suggests a terrible prognosis: Parkinson’s disease.  True, it’s basically painless and there are medications that can slow the progress, but it seems unlikely he will be able to play with the group for much longer.

A stone arch is solid and can support incredible weights, but it relies on each stone supporting the others just so.  Disturbing one piece leads touches off a cascade of shifts that threaten to bring down the whole structure.  Just so, Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the second violinist, inspired by his jogging partner, Pilar (Liraz Charhi), advances the suggestion that if the group’s sound is to change anyway, he would like to take first violin on at least some pieces.  This does not sit well with Daniel (Mark Ivanir), the first violinist, and he is backed up but Juliette (Catherine Keener), the violist and Robert’s wife.

As Peter comes to terms with his disease and negotiates with an old friend (Wallace Shawn) for his replacement in the quartet, the other three spin out of control, unearthing interpersonal dynamics that have stayed buried for a quarter of a century that threaten to bring down the entire group.  These are sometimes played out directly, and sometimes by proxy through Alexandra (Imogen Poots), daughter to Robert and Juliette, student at Juilliard to Peter, and tutee to Daniel.

The film centers on Beethoven’s opus 131, one of his “late” quartets composed near the end of his life.  Notable to only for its length of seven movements, it is also meant to be played without a break between sections, giving no time for adjustment or retuning.  Life being what it is, the performers’ instruments will necessarily wander from their original harmony, each in divergent and unexpected ways.  The challenge, as in life, is to adjust to compensate for this as you go.

The script, by Zilberman and Seth Grossman, exploits this allegory.  The dynamics between the characters are rich and textured, evoking the parts of the quartet: Daniel is a precise and perfectionist soloist, refusing to abandon the decades of notes on his score; Robert’s imagination fills and backs the lead; Juliette provides a warm, emotional core, dancing with each violin in turn; Peter sits behind it all, providing stability while occasionally coming to the fore with the rest of the group.

Each part is beautifully cast, and each actor is at their best.  It’s among the best performances I’ve seen from Hoffman, and it’s definitely the best I’ve seen from Keener in a long time.  But the real treat is a chance to see Walken in a rare form.  His greatness in Seven Psychopaths was partly his talent, but partly because it was precisely the kind of bizarre role he’s become identified with.  But here he is in a straight drama with no menacing glint in his eye, and he shines from the reflective, measured tones of a master at the end of a successful career to his physical portrayal of the onset of Parkinson’s.

I’m not sure if there has ever been a screenplay that can be truly said to be adapted from a piece of non-lyrical music.  If there has been, it can’t be as well-done as this one.  What Zilberman presents is truly audacious and continues to reveal itself on further and further reflection, which places it among the greatest works of art.

Worth It: yes, absolutely.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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