Inspired by and structured around Beethoven’s Opus 131 String Quartet in C-sharp minor, Yaron Zilberman’s A Late Quartet is an exquisite portrait of family dynamics within a construct of classical music. When the elder statesman of a string quartet determines it’s time to retire after a quarter century, repressed desires rise to the surface and threaten to destroy the friendships and music the group has built together. Smart writing, moving performances and of course a lovely soundtrack coalesce into an intimate cinematic gem.
At the outset of the Fugue String Quartet’s 25th season, cellist Peter (Christopher Walken) is diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative nervous disorder that’s particularly devastating to a musician. With treatment, he may be able to perform in their first concert, but he decides early that it will be his last and starts making arrangements to find a replacement. Walken is subdued and dignified in the role, the pragmatic father figure determined to hold the group together.
Violist Juliette (Catherine Keener) doesn’t take the news well. Jules, as the others call her, lived with Peter and his wife for a time while she studied at Juilliard. Their familial ties are strong—Peter played in a quartet with Jules’ mother as well—and she’s not sure she wants to go on with the Fugue without him. If Peter is the heart of the group, Jules is its tortured soul.
Jules’ husband Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman) plays second violin, and with Peter’s possible departure, he senses an opening. A new cellist would transform the sound of the quartet, so he suggests making another change as well: alternating first and second chair. Robert eloquently defends his role in the group—it’s not hierarchical, they just have different parts—but the truth is he never wanted to play second fiddle. That Jules doesn’t immediately support him strains their already chilly relationship. Robert is sensitive and raw, acting out in bursts of emotion after years of suppressing his feelings for the good of the group.
The object of Robert’s frustration is Daniel (Mark Ivanir), the Fugue’s exacting first violin who saves his passion for playing—until, that is, he gets involved with Robert and Jules’ daughter Alexandra (Imogen Poots), an accomplished musician in her own right, in a character arc that strikes the film’s only false note.
The Fugue’s history together is long and storied, and Zilberman, along with cowriter Seth Grossman, allows it to unfold organically, conveying important backstories not through awkward expositional dialogue but through the clever incorporation of archival photos, articles and interviews. Likewise, we don’t learn that Daniel is crafting a bow from scratch because he tells us he is; rather we watch him do it as the film progresses. And the script’s rich themes about family, about creative collaboration, about passion and about aging are revealed not directly but through discussion of the music—always the music. As a result, watching A Late Quartet is an act of discovery, much like playing a new piece for the first time.
The Beethoven featured in the film is actually performed by the Brentano String Quartet, supplemented seamlessly with additional music by composer Angelo Badalamenti, but it’s clear that the actors are playing on-screen. Their approximations aren’t perfect—their vibratos and intensities of bow stroke don’t always match the soundtrack—but they’re decent enough attempts so as to not be distracting, and Zilberman skillfully films their performances so as to minimize these issues and maximize emotion.
Zilberman’s writing and direction, his actors’ performances, and Beethoven’s music work help make A Late Quartet a cinematic experience with all the beauty, all the tension, all the dynamics and ultimately all the love of Opus 131.
Director: Yaron Zilberman
Writers: Yaron Zilberman and Seth Grossman
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christopher Walken, Mark Ivanir, Catherine Keener, Imogen Poots, Liraz Charhi
Release Date: Nov. 2, 2012