DIR: Yaron Zilberman • WRI: Seth Grossman, Yaron Zilberman • PRO: Vanessa Coifman, David Faigenblum, Emanuel Michael, Tamar Sela, Mandy Tagger, Yaron Zilberman • DOP: Frederick Elmes • ED: Yuval Shar • DES: John Kasarda • CAST: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christopher Walken, Catherine Keener
In his first fictional feature, Yaron Zilberman explores an interesting dynamic as the Fugue String Quartet faces an existential crisis. They have played over 3,000 performances in their 25 years together. The onset of Parkinson’s disease challenges the cellist, Peter, just as the quartet begins preparing for the new season. His decision to retire exacerbates tensions within the group.
The film centres on Zilberman’s interpretation of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 (Opus 131) as set out by Peter, teaching his class. Beethoven instructed its performers to play the piece, with seven movements instead of the usual four, attacca, i.e. without a pause, leaving the players no chance to retune. Peter says that playing the piece can end up a mess. ‘What are we supposed to do?’ he asks, ‘Stop, or to continuously adjust to each other up to the end, even if we are out of tune?’ The music, performed on the soundtrack by the Brentano String Quartet, functions as a metaphor for the intertwining lives of the quartet’s members.
Second violinist Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman) wants to alternate with lead violinist Daniel (Mark Ivanir), a methodical perfectionist. Robert believes his passionate approach makes him a great violinist. He begins to feel that Daniel has controlled the quartet’s development, confronts him about philandering with his wife Juliette, and really hates it when Daniel gets involved with his daughter Alex. Philip Seymour Hoffman delivers another excellent performance.
Juliette’s mother performed with Peter in a quartet before she died. His quartet broke up thereafter. Juliette (Catherine Keener) fears that the Fugue will break up after Peter’s departure. She hopes the drugs will help him and that he can continue. She wants the quartet to remain as it is, and her initial refusal to support her husband Robert strains their marriage. She turns to Daniel for support before discovering Daniel’s dalliance with her daughter. Catherine Keener contributes an understated but effective performance. Her best scenes are those difficult moments when she discovers her husband’s infidelity.
Daniel approached Peter about forming the quartet and shaped its direction. He pours over scores, making copious notes, striving for a performance of perfection. Daniel’s ambition makes his reaction to Peter’s illness seem cold. His priority is finding a replacement. He also agrees to tutor Alex. He falls in love with her. Mark Ivanir holds his own in an ensemble that includes Oscar-winners Walken and Hoffman and Oscar-nominee Catherine Keener.
Walken takes on an atypical role, playing a fatherly figure, the professor who knew his age inevitably meant quitting the quartet. Walken’s best scenes come early in the film, particularly when he learns the bad news, but he later provides the film’s emotional climax, demonstrating his versatility in a sensitive and physically challenging apart.
Set in wintry New York, nicely shot by Frederick Elmes, Zilberman’s film plays safe and conservatively. Jogging in Central Park and conversations in cabs and elegant apartments provide the non-descript backdrop to the unfolding melodrama. There is nothing to confront the apparent elitism of classical music and ‘high culture’. Splashing out over $20,000 on a violin raises no eyebrows.
A Late Quartet is an ensemble piece exploring ensemble dynamics, allowing its talented actors to shine at various points throughout the film. With such an accomplished cast, it would be difficult to go wrong, and, performance-wise, this enjoyable film never strikes a bum note.
15A (see IFCO website for details)
A Late Quartet is released on 5th April 2013