LITTLE ROCK — While classical music sometimes seems to exist in a bubble protected from the real world, the people who play it struggle with the same issues everyone else does. That’s the foundation for documentarian Yaron Zilberman’s new movie, A Late Quartet, which follows a celebrated string quartet called The Fugue, who may never pick up their bows again.
The leader of the combo, cellist Peter Mitchell (Christopher Walken), has discovered that he has Parkinson’s and won’t be able to play much longer. After 25 years, keeping the music going may involve more than simply finding a new cellist.
Robert Gelbart (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the quartet’s second violinist, has been dying to play the parts the first violinist Daniel Lerner (Mark Ivanir, The Human Resources Manager) has been playing all along.
Robert’s ego is getting crushed because he wants a chance to show off while Daniel’s ego makes him averse to sharing. Perhaps the subject might never have been broached if a pretty flamenco dancer (Liraz Charhi, Fair Game) hadn’t unknowingly goaded Robert into seeking the spotlight.
Robert’s wife, Juliette (Catherine Keener), is glum over what appears to be Peter’s imminent departure. Playing viola has earned her a nice living, but all that touring has strained her relationship with her newly grown daughter Alexandra (Imogen Poots).
Looming over the growing discord in The Fugue is an approaching performance of Beethoven’s Opus 131, which Peter wants to have as his swan song. It’s a challenging piece even when the group is getting along, but the current clashes may stop the performance from happening.
Zilberman first made his mark with the documentary Watermarks, and he appears to have decent instincts for how to stage fiction films as well. Walken, Hoffman, Keener, Ivanir and Poots all look convincing wielding a bow, and when a character hits a sour note, we can hear it.
Too often in films about classical music, even “struggling” musicians play flawlessly. The climactic performance is actually played by the Brentano Quartet, and their cellist, Nina Lee, can be spotted in the film. Even if you couldn’t care less about the plot, it’s a fine way to get introduced to the Opus.
Soundtrack composer Angelo Badalamenti (who’s scored most of David Lynch’s films) creates incidental music that meshes seamlessly with Beethoven’s. When the soundtrack switches from music to dialogue, however, A Late Quartet isn’t as engaging.
While a storyline about Peter’s struggle would certainly be compelling on its own, Zilberman and his co-screenwriter Seth Grossman throw in not one but two affairs. While a single dalliance might have given the tale a foothold in the real world and have added a sense of tension to the story, two illicit relationships drive the story into unbelievability and give the impression that ideas have been simply tossed into the mix instead of fully incorporated.
Fortunately, the cast is expectedly strong and capable of making viewers briefly forget the story shortcomings. A good soundtrack can help cover for that as well.
A Late Quartet
77 Cast: Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Imogen Poots, Catherine Keener, Wallace Shawn, Mark Ivanir, Liraz Charhi, Madhur Jaffrey, Megan McQuillan, Nina Lee Director: Yaron Zilberman Rating: R, for language, sexuality Running time: 105 minutes