In a stately examination of life as a piece of music and people as the instruments on which it is played, Yaron Zilberman’s A Late Quartet displays successful performances in a film about the importance of a group despite the tensions that emphasize the individual, and the deep commitment to professional artistry.
Not to be confused with Quartet, the unhelpfully similar upcoming Dustin Hoffman film, A Late Quartet chronicles the preparation of the New York-based Fugue string quartet for a twenty-fifth anniversary concert and the performance of Beethoven's seven-movement Opus 131. However, beneath the placid appearance of an early rehearsal, trouble begins to brew. Peter (Christopher Walken) reveals that he is experiencing the early symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, throwing the quartet’s lineup into jeopardy. Despite the emotional turmoil this information causes, the members of the quartet move in the direction of disaster as the concert approaches. Second violin Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman) begins a petulant crusade to play first violin, tired of being seen as secondary to Daniel (Mark Ivanir). Juliette (Catherine Keener), the viola player and Robert's wife, tries to remedy a strained relationship with both her husband and their daughter, Alexandra (Imogen Poots).
The relationships between the central characters crumble and reconnect throughout the film, and though none of the plot developments are particularly revelatory, the acting more than makes up for the script’s occasional faults. As characters whose art both builds and destroys their connection to others, Hoffman, Keener, Walken and Ivanir form an outstanding ensemble cast. Hoffman’s Robert is the most interesting, both slightly pathetic and callous in his ambition. As Juliette, Keener’s weariness is tender and haunted. Watching all of them destroy each other and attempt to pick up the pieces makes A Late Quartet entertaining despite the troubled-New-York-artist trope. Though humor rarely permeates the film’s often cold tone, it is handled gracefully and balanced with an imminent sense of catastrophe.
A Late Quartet looks and sounds beautiful, filled with gorgeous lighting and a soundtrack that blends seamlessly with the performance scenes. Zilberman’s portrayal of New York shies away from the looming skyscrapers, focusing instead on intimate interiors. Even if the apartments (especially daughter Alexandra’s) look like they’ve been culled from a glorious union of Anthropologie, Urban Outfitters and IKEA, the set design is smooth and artful.
While the script stumbles along the way, particularly near the end of the film, A Late Quartet is never less than watchable thanks to strong, fully-realized performances from its polished cast. Successfully merging art and life, Zilberman takes a story of broken instruments and broken people and makes transcendent music out of the chaos.
A Late Quartet (R, 1 hr 45 mins), opens in limited release this Friday.