Review: A Late Quartet (2013)

In what could easily be a stuffy affair, A Late Quartet manages instead to leave a lasting and emotional impression, thanks hugely to its wonderfully played cast.

In a film brimming with discussions of classical music and professional rivalries, Yaron Zilberman’s quiet debut fiction-feature A Late Quartet manages to shy away from pretense and instead leaves a truly lasting impression in this modest gem of a drama.

Any relationships that spans decades can be assumed to carry a certain weight of baggage along with them, and it is this that concerns A Late Quartet. With the 25th anniversary season of the world-renowned Fugue Quartet approaching, ageing cellist Peter (played to perfection by Christopher Walken) is diagnosed with the early symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. When he announces to his colleagues that the upcoming opening night will be his farewell concert, the tight-knit group begins to unravel as personal rivalries emerge, threatening the future of the quartet.

Whilst this may sound like a purely high-brow film focused on the professional relationships of a cultural group often heralded as pretentious “art-types” (and to some extent, it is), the film’s strength comes from its ability to make these characters not just understandable, but moving. No more evidence is needed than the choice to give a Peter, a concert cellist, a disease affecting his movement. Coupled with the fact that he is still mourning the loss of his wife the sadness of Christopher Walken’s character is almost tactile. However, it is the other members of the quartet that the film shifts its focus on to, as Peter’s disorder triggers a series of events that affects all of them.

The group’s construction interlocks all of its members like a family, with second chair violin player Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman) married to Peter’s stepdaughter Juliette (Catherine Keener), the quartet’s violist. With Peter’s plans to leave the group, Robert sees it as an opportunity to reorganise the Fugue’s structure, hoping to share first chair with the other violinist, the vastly talented Daniel (Mark Ivanir), who is currently teaching the married couple’s daughter, Alexandra. With such tightly wound relationships having lasted so long, a myriad of resentments are present, and soon begin to emerge.

It may seem odd that classical music was chosen as the subject for a film about disintegrating relationships, however there is some sense to it. Each character sets themselves apart by how they wish to play. Robert is intent on playing with passion, whilst precision is the pursuit of Daniel. The comparison of musical expression and personality, whilst perhaps melodramatic, provides good ground for the group’s tensions, and makes it easy to identify with their differences.

With any ensemble piece, it is important that the performances match the promise of the characters, and this is certainly true of A Late Quartet. Philip Seymour Hoffman is as strong as ever, turning his somewhat formulaic character into a persona of real emotion and feeling, with good supporting performances from Catherine Keener and Mark Ivanir. The introduction of Imogen Poots as the willful and passionate Alexandra may serve its narrative purpose well, but her performance does interfere with the tone of the film, serving only to distract from the more impressive members of the cast.

However, the stand-out performance is that of Christopher Walken, whose only fault is that he is not seen enough. As the other characters take issue with each other, he is left alone with his diagnosis for much of the film, with only brief scenes in which he shows just how powerful an actor he still is. His depiction of the tragedy of being let down by his own body, and physical degradation matched with that of emotion, is poignant and exceptionally emotional. He also allows for the clinical discussion of classical music to seem unpretentious, imbuing it with his own passion and making it accessible for the audience.

When coupled with Zilberman’s attentive direction and the almost mournful string soundtrack, A Late Quartet is a truly affecting film, able to work its way into the heart without notice. Some aspects of its classical phrasing and borderline melodrama put it in danger of being completely unremarkable, but thanks to the outstanding ensemble cast, the film is well worth watching.

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