At an early point in Yaron Zilberman’s new film A Late Quartet, Peter Mitchell (Christopher Walken) the cellist and father figure of a world renowned string quartet, explains Beethoven’s Opus 131 to his students: “It has seven movements and they’re all connected. For us, it means playing without pause; no resting, no tuning. Our instruments must, in time, go out of tune–each in its own quite different way. Was he trying to point some cohesion, some unity, between random acts of life? What are we supposed to do? Stop? Or struggle to continuously adjust to each other until the end?”
It is an apt metaphor for the four musical souls at the heart of this intriguing little film which tries–not always successfully–to balance fidelity to the lives and behavior of real-life, successful classical musicians with the demands of a story that aims to attract a larger audience of people who won’t much care if the actors are holding their instruments correctly or not. The result is a plot that won’t really please musicians or civilians completely and is a bit more melodrama than drama.
While the quartet is preparing to launch its 25th season, the Peter Mitchell character (Walken, playing brilliantly against type) discovers that he has early stage Parkinson’s. He knows his playing days are soon over but he wants to play the first concert of the new season as his farewell and he also wants to pick his successor. As the other members absorb the devastating news, it quickly become clear that Mitchell has been the adult who held the quartet together and all of the simmering rivalries and perceived slights of the other players come rushing to the surface. Robert Gelbart (Philip Seymour Hoffman, second violin) and Juliette Gelbart (Catherine Kenner, viola) are not so happily married–or, at least, she isn’t. She’s still not sure she shouldn’t have married the first violinist Daniel (Mark Ivanir) when they were dating in the early days of the quartet. Robert is also tired of playing second fiddle and wants to rotate the first chair. Daniel is a perfectionist and a pain-in-the-ass. Throw in a subplot about Robert and Juliette’s daughter, Alexandra (Imogen Poots) being a promising young violinist who gets involved with first violinist (We won’t mention the mother-daughter thing here), Robert having a one-night stand with a Latin beauty he runs with in the park, and the ghost of Peter’s wife, Miriam (Anne Sophie von Otter) showing up in his bedroom and singing him to sleep and you can see that maybe there is a little too much extra-musical stuff going on.
What makes the film work as well as it does is solid performances by everyone. Philip Seymour Hoffman is his usual commanding self. Catherine Keener is one of the most underrated actresses working. Ivanir is solid and Christopher Walken, miraculously, comes across as a sweet, gentle man that you’d like to take cello lessons from. This is the kind of film that doesn’t get made that often, about a subject that we all care about. It offers a modestly faithful look into the world of classical music and musicians. It may get a little out of tune along the way but the players deserve our applause for making it to the end.