Review: A Late Quartet

Duncan Wu savours the cadence and nuance that a superb cast bring to this portrayal of the relationship between art and life

April 4, 2013

A Late Quartet
Directed by Yaron Zilberman
Starring Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Mark Ivanir and Catherine Keener
Released in the UK on 5 April

A Late Quartet begins with bad news. Peter Mitchell (played by Christopher Walken), leader of a world-famous string quartet, is diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and announces his decision to retire after the first concert of their next season.

His colleagues are thrown into turmoil. The designated second violinist, Robert Gelbart (Philip Seymour Hoffman), tells his colleagues that in future he wants to alternate with the first violinist, Daniel Lerner (Mark Ivanir). Neither Daniel nor the viola player, Robert’s wife Juliette (Catherine Keener), sees the need for change. In response, Robert has a fling with a flamenco dancer, Pilar (Liraz Charhi), threatening the future of his marriage. An ascetic who lives for his art, Daniel unexpectedly falls in love with Robert and Juliette’s grown-up daughter, Alexandra (Imogen Poots), also a classical musician. The stage is set for the quartet’s break-up.

Other plays and novels have explored the relationship between art and life, but I’m hard put to think of one that does it with so little appearance of effort

There is no way of summarising A Late Quartet without making it sound like a soap opera, although it occurs to me the same might be said of Antony and Cleopatra - which raises the question of how good art differs from bad. At any rate, A Late Quartet is a clever, subtle film, in which the drama and music are of a piece, and it avoids any potential traps its writer/director Yaron Zilberman might have embedded in the plotline. This is partly because it is so well cast.

No one who has seen The Deer Hunter (1978) would doubt Walken’s abilities as an actor, but in recent years he has turned up in films that demand too little of him. Other than last year’s Seven Psychopaths (a silly, entertaining romp), the last really interesting film in which I can remember seeing him must be Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead (1995), close on two decades ago.

Now, A Late Quartet brings him from the world of fantasy into something like reality, demanding he play a widower forced by illness to come to terms with the end of a distinguished career. One of Walken’s strengths is to combine subtlety of technique with unpredictability. “Wow!” he responds, when his doctor (played by Madhur Jaffrey) tells him he has Parkinson’s. I’m not sure whether that was in the script, but I’m willing to bet Walken is one of the few actors who could have pulled it off.

Like the music with which it is filled, this film is an ensemble piece, and Walken is not the sole cast member to realise his character so persuasively. Hoffman and Keener as the Gelbarts are totally convincing as the husband and wife whose marital troubles spell trouble for the quartet. In Synecdoche, New York (2008), they also played a couple whose marriage was on the skids, but these characters are quite different. Hoffman has forsaken his ambition to “compose, perform other kinds of music” for the security offered by his personal and professional life, but is shaken by the slow-dawning suspicion that his wife neither loves nor supports him. Even as he declares, “I love you more than anything else in the world”, we hear the unmistakable tones of frustration and self-hatred.

Juliette could have been a thankless role to play, but Keener makes something special of the character, shocked as she is by the scale of her husband’s crisis. One of the film’s most impressive scenes is that in which she confronts Robert and Pilar at a coffee shop in Columbus Circle - a tooth-grindingly contained scene, and all the better for it.

The challenge for Ivanir as Daniel is to play such an unappealing character. He begins as a hermit obsessed to the point of making his own violin bows from horsehair he sources from ranches in upstate New York. As a violinist he is technically expert, if dry and cerebral. “What are you afraid of?” Robert says to him, “Unleash your passion!” Daniel does so by having an affair with Robert’s daughter, whom he has known since she was a young girl.

It is a fascinating role that emphasises the film’s concern with the link between scholarship and the body - or, to put it another way, the relationship between art and life. Life is the thing from which art comes: bloody, incoherent, embarrassing, arbitrary and cruel. Art is an idealised vision of life, with the power to bestow order on chaos. Other plays and novels have explored this, but I’m hard put to think of one that does it with so little appearance of effort. By that I mean the argument of A Late Quartet is so firmly welded to the narrative that the development of one cannot help but precipitate that of the other. The central relationships, spanning decades, have been at the service of music, and are played out in the snowbound pantheons of New York City: the Frick, the Metropolitan Museum, Central Park. This means the discussion of art and life is always in view, even when it does not seem to be.

And then there is Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 in C sharp minor, opus 131, which provides a metaphor for a reading of the film, and is what the quartet will play at Peter’s final appearance with them. As he explains, it has seven connected movements that must be played attacca (without pause) while the musicians’ instruments inevitably fall out of tune, “each in their own quite different way”. The characters also lose harmony, and the film puts them to the test of tracing their way back to it. Beethoven provides them not only with a motive for doing so, but with the means.

Its ambitions justify the view that A Late Quartet is more than high-class soap; those who describe it as such have missed the point. At least it isn’t fantasy, the default of many contemporary films. I know little about string quartets, but this is a credible account in part because it is based on reality. The Guarneri Quartet came close to splitting when its leader, David Soyer, wanted to retire; they survived only a few years after his replacement by his protégé Peter Wiley. Zilberman has pointed also to the experiences of the Quartetto Italiano and Emerson String Quartet as narrative sources.

Zilberman is a gifted director who has made only one previous film - a documentary called Watermarks (2004), about a successful women’s swimming team in pre-war Austria scattered by the German takeover of the country in 1938. It is unusual for someone to come out of nowhere to make a film with a cast so distinguished, to such a high standard. Even at a purely visual level, it intrigues: although shot in New York, this is not a prettified version of the city because the drama takes place in the depths of winter, when everything seems strangely quiet and shut down. Its predominant colourings - earth tones, mainly - are appropriately muted. If I have one criticism, it is that A Late Quartet is rather theatrical, yet even that seems an unjust charge given that I would rather watch a cast of this calibre put to the treadmill than squandered on material they can do in their sleep.

When released in the US, A Late Quartet generated a measly $1.5 million - a tiny fraction of the $1.5 billion made by The Avengers (a film I hope never to see). That may be explained by the fact that A Late Quartet contains no special effects, criminal kingpins, drug abuse or physical violence; instead, it offers thoughtful, character-driven drama that remains with you long after it has been viewed. It is one of the most entertaining films you are likely to see this year.

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