Movie Review: A Late Quartet
Length: 105 min
Release Date: Nov. 2, 2012
Directed by: Yaron Zilberman
Stars: 3 out of 5
"A Late Quartet" is a movie that provides a peek into the troubles and travails of The Fugue, a world-famous New York-based string quartet at the beginning of its twenty-sixth season. Cellist Peter Mitchell (Christopher Walken) announces that he has been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. The remaining members of the quartet, first violinist Daniel Lerner (Mark Ivanir), second violinist Robert Gelbart (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and violist wife, Juliette Gelbart (Catherine Keener) are stunned to hear that the group may have to continue playing without its patriarch and founder member.
Robert strikes the first note of discord when he indicates his desire to play first chair. This brings him in obvious conflict with Daniel, who feels he, apart from being a better violinist than Robert, is more motivated to lead the group. Director Yaron Zilberman, making his first fiction feature film, concentrates on the details and helps the audience understand that all is not well with the seemingly united and successful group. The suggestion leads to a discussion and quickly degenerates into a virulent disagreement. It becomes evident that petty egos that lay dormant under Peter's leadership now threaten to split the group.
To Robert's dismay, Juliette rejects his opportunistic move to grab the top spot in the group. Shattered by her mentor's illness, Juliette's discovers Robert's past infidelities and Daniel's intimacy with her daughter, Alexandra (Imogen Poot).
The journey through the group's travails and subsequent redemption would have resembled a boring television soap but for one significant thing: music. Music can well be described as the most prominent member of the movie's cast. The director could have taken the easy way out and could have included a few perfunctory scenes showing the members playing classical music. However, Yaron makes music an integral part of the movie by making the group practice Beethoven's Opus 131 for Peter's farewell performance.
It is difficult to suppress an expression of outrage when you discovers that this piece, consisting of seven movements, must be played without a pause. The toughest thing about playing the piece is that the instruments will inevitably go out of tune because there is no scope for remedial action once the performance begins. Other team members often have to make changes in their performances to compensate for the errant instrument. Each member will have to do this in the course of the seven movements. Watching an aging patriarch unsure of his abilities combined with the remaining three members who cannot stand the sight of each other play a musical piece that demands absolute cooperation and total teamwork is simply delightful.
Expecting an actor, no matter how talented, to master Beethoven's String Quartet No. 14 for a movie is downright impossible. This is why the director appointed personal coaches for each member of the quartet to help them look as if they have been playing the instruments throughout their lives. The cast studied famous ensembles to get minor details and subtle mannerisms right. This only reinforces the overall authentic feel of the movie.
Classical musical performances do not offer significant opportunities for dazzling camerawork. Yet the film's crisp photography captures the grace of the musical performances. The director has done a fantastic job highlighting the contrast between the team's fabulous synchronization during the performance and their agitated, impulsive, and reckless off-stage interactions.
The powerhouse cast lives up to its top billing. Walken is simply superb as a master performer who discovers that he is fast losing control not just over his movements but also over his legacy. Hoffman does an admirable job playing an ambitious artist seeking what he thinks he deserves. Hoffman does not try to hide the inconsistencies in his character. Even those who do not follow classical music can identify with Hoffman's skills, ambition, and emotional insecurity.
Keener emotes well and does a decent job expressing the trauma of watching her mentor age even as her husband and daughter cause her more grief. Her plea seeking to be recognized as a dutiful mother shows how life can be tough for brilliant and creative individuals as well.
If you want to nitpick, you can criticize the manner in which the off-stage lives of the characters have been portrayed. Classical music connoisseurs may find the emotional drama to be slightly tedious. Those who want to watch an out-and-out drama may find the musical interludes distracting. Overall, "A Late Quartet" is a genuine attempt to show how change, old age, and emotional problems affect our lives and how music, in its own inimitable way, can provide relief.