A NYC based classical string quartet, together for 25 successful years, deal with hidden agendas and resentments coming to the surface when one member decides to leave the group due to Parkinson’s. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christopher Walken and Catherine Keener star.
In the 25th year of their career together, a famous string quartet receives some devastating news. Peter, their cellist, has been diagnosed in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease. This bombshell interrupts the steady pace of their work and exposes personal issues that have long remained latent.
"A Late Quartet" does one of the most interesting things any film can do. It shows how skilled professionals work. I knew about string quartets in general. Now I know more about them in practice, especially about how they require four talented individuals to form into one disciplined voice. I suspect any serious music lover will be convinced that Yaron Zilberman's film knows what it is talking about.
One of the pleasures here is to see familiar and gifted actors forming an ensemble of their own. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christopher Walken and Catherine Keener join with a newer face, Mark Ivanir, to play the members of the Fugue String Quartet, a world-famous ensemble based in Manhattan. Walken is Peter Mitchell, the cellist, who is the wisest and most thoughtful member of the group. Hoffman and Keener are Robert and Juliette Gelbart, the second violin and viola, who are married. The first violin and youngest member of the group is Daniel Lerner (Ivanir).
Peter notices a weakness in the fingers of his left hand, consults a specialist (Madhur Jaffrey) and is startled to learn that even before a blood test and a brain scan she can tell him, on the basis of a few simple physical tests, that she suspects Parkinson's. He reveals this quietly to his fellow musicians. In this moment and throughout the film, Christopher Walken reminds us that although he often plays caricatures and joins in kidding his mannerisms (see the recent "Seven Psychopaths"), he can be a deep and subtle actor, particularly good at suggesting deep intelligence.
His character's announcement inspires a bright idea by the second violinist, Robert, that he and the lead violinist, Daniel, could begin to switch chairs. Since the loss of their cellist doesn't require a rearrangement of the violins, it's clear that this idea has been long smoldering in his mind. It is quickly shot down and precipitates other buried issues, including a situation of adultery, and another unsettling revelation that Daniel has been having an affair with young Alexandra (Imogene Poots) — who is the daughter of Robert and Juliette.
These melodramatic themes are intercut with knowledgeable scenes showing the Fugue Quartet in rehearsal and performance; they're preparing to present Beethoven's String Quartet No. 14, Op. 131, itself a late work by the master with a certain funereal air. Peter believes it could provide his farewell performance, and so it does in an unanticipated way, allowing Walken to display the great depth and dignity of his character.
How much does one need to know about classical music to appreciate this film? Not very much. Like all masterful films, it contains what is needed to appreciate it. All that is needed is an interest in human nature, which during the quartet's period of crisis is abundantly revealed. Actors such as Keener, Walken, Hoffman and Ivanir are frequently seen in roles that don't really test them. That's the nature of the commercial cinema. What a pleasure to see them sounding their depths.
Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times, October 31st 2012.
Musical groups, coming together, working harmoniously, splitting up, reuniting, provide one of the great metaphors for human activity. In the cinema we encounter them in such different forms as the real-life bandleaders Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey feuding and going their different ways in The Fabulous Dorseys; Bing Crosby's inner-city priest reforming delinquents as a choir in Going My Way; Fellini's allegorical Orchestra Rehearsal presenting Italy as a musical rabble that can only function when submitting to a firm conductor; or Dustin Hoffman's recent Quartet, which sees elderly singers burying old differences to recreate their celebrated quartet from Rigoletto.
A Late Quartet, written and directed by the American documentarian Yaron Silberman, is a major contribution to this continuing cycle. A subtle, intelligent picture with a suitably resonant title, it quietly observes the internal dynamics of the Fugue String Quartet, an internationally acclaimed musical group founded and based in New York that has been playing around the world for 25 years. We encounter them as an entity, working together thoughtfully, a trifle self-regarding perhaps, and then we get to know them as individuals.
Their founder, the cellist Peter Mitchell (Christopher Walken in an uncharacteristically pensive role), is a quiet, paternalistic figure, whose wife, a well-known concert singer, has recently died. The second violin, the impetuous, overweight Robert Gelbart (Philip Seymour Hoffman), is married to the quartet's graceful, composed viola player, Juliette (Catherine Keener), whom he met as a student at Julliard. Both are in their 40s and have a daughter, Alex (Imogen Poots), herself a student of the violin. The fourth member is the first violinist, Daniel Lerner (Mark Ivanir), an intense central European immigrant of great technical brilliance, who makes bows, rebuilds violins and is a highly demanding teacher, one of whose pupils is Alex.
We sense the tensions between them but appreciate that they have been subsumed into their quarter of century of playing together. They have found satisfaction not in discarding their individuality but in unselfishly contributing to a collaborative endeavour. Their unity is expressed in the music and also in the joint filmed interview that illustrates, a little too demonstratively perhaps, the face they present to the world. But all this is to be disrupted, the quartet challenged both singly and as a group.
Early on, the somewhat melancholy Peter introduces his student class to Beethoven's Op 131, the String Quartet No 14 in C sharp minor, which is to figure centrally in the film, and he precedes it by delivering the first 10 lines of Burnt Norton, first of TS Eliot's Four Quartets. But he speaks the lines in a conversational manner quite unlike Eliot's sepulchral, Anglican-pulpit style. He's talking of time in music and life, of continuity, circularity, eternity. And he goes on to point out that this late quartet has seven movements instead of the customary five, and that Beethoven demanded that it be played attacca, that is without any pause between movements. Both Op 131 and attacca become key elements in the film's dramatic structure.
Peter has been having trouble fingering the strings of his cello, and a sympathetic doctor (a gentle performance by Madhur Jaffrey) diagnoses early signs of Parkinson's disease, and while he accepts this with resigned equanimity the quartet is thrown into confusion. In facing an uncertain future, they begin to consider their own careers as musicians and individuals, and Peter himself is involved in seeking to find a cellist who'll replace him and assure continuity. Fissures occur, fears are released. The first violin seeks equality. Robert and Juliette's marriage is threatened. Their daughter turns against them and embarks on an affair with Daniel, the first violinist. Although a punch is thrown and bitter words exchanged, this is about a buried turbulence that registers forcefully on the civilised seismographs of the characters' minds and hearts.
The film is set during a bitter but deeply romantic New York winter. Central Park is covered in snow. The warm, welcoming interiors contrast with the outside world, reflecting the feelings of the leading figures and the futures they face. There's a particularly expressive scene at night when Juliette, Daniel and Robert leave a meeting with the isolated, stoical Peter, knowing that his Parkinson's will soon take him from the quartet. They stand in the street, the snow falling in the night, talking reservedly of what lies around the corner. As the rotund Robert gets a little too frank about his intentions, his wife and Daniel draw away from him in moral disgust and each walks off in a different direction. He's left alone, bewildered, frozen out in the enveloping dark.
The cinematographer Frederick Elmes, a frequent collaborator of both David Lynch and Ang Lee, has made a wonderful job of locating the characters in their domestic environments – the plain wood of Peter's spacious brownstone apartment, the seedy hotel where Robert finds temporary refuge when his marriage is threatened, the messy student bedsitter where the rebellious young Alex has a confrontation with her judgmental mother. There are also lovingly staged scenes in the concert hall at the Metropolitan Museum, at a Sotheby's musical instrument auction, a visit to the Frick Collection, where Peter communes with a late Rembrandt self-portrait, and a drive into the countryside for Daniel to buy horse hair for the bows he crafts.
A Late Quartet is visually and musically rich. But above all there are the performances, individually and as an ensemble, and they're pitch perfect. It's a minor moment, but there's one scene that particularly sticks in my mind. It's when Philip Seymour Hoffman pulls himself together for a crucial concert by shaving off his unkempt beard. In that simple act of looking in the mirror, putting on the soap and wielding his razor you witness a life being rethought.
Philip French, The Observer, 7th April 2013.