a late quartet review
© Artificial Eye

A Late Quartet

2012
Dir: Yaron Zilberman

Harmonious Relations

Reminiscent of the type of cinematic coincidence that arguably tainted the release of both Capote (2005) and Infamous (2006) a few years back, two releases centring on the later years of an ageing musical foursome arrive in the UK within 3 months of each other. Following Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut Quartet (2012) in January, we now have A Late Quartet, as if to acknowledge its secondary arrival. But it is this latter addition that is perhaps the more resonant piece.

Events begin when Christopher Walken’s ageing cellist is diagnosed with a debilitating illness. His playing days are numbered. The beloved, world-renowned Fugue Quartet he has played in for more than twenty-five years must find a replacement if it is to continue. But do the others even want to go on without him, their founder, their driving force, their heart? The shattering news of his imminent retreat from the stage shakes all four members to the core. It sets in motion a chain of events that inevitably brings unspoken resentments to the surface and sees tensions rise, relationships tested, and egos rising and (crest) falling.

Walken sports the same over-egged bouffant that I presumed was being employed for comic effect in Seven Psychopaths (2012) so it’s clearly a deliberate (and distractingly humorous) choice on his part. Yet his facing up to an inevitable decline, while still mourning his wife, strikes an unexpectedly humble and dignified tone. The rest of the central cast are equally strong. Catherine Keener is reserved and gracefully world-weary, the always-engaging Philip Seymour Hoffman (of the aforementioned Capote clash) is bruised, with insecurities barely restrained. Yet it is probably the lesser-known Mark Ivanir who impresses most as the uptight and egoistic first violinist. One senses his icy composure has remained utterly intact, dominating the quarter century of the outfit’s musical ascendency. Now it is being tested to breaking point by the threatened collapse of the interwoven musical and personal worlds around him.

The music itself remains centre stage throughout. It feels refreshing for a ‘mainstream’ film to give dutiful space and attention to the classical works at its centre. Visually, it’s the romantic ideal of New York being presented here, complete with a light dusting of sentimental snow. It looks suitably inviting for it, through balanced and harmoniously composed cinematography.

The house-of-cards deterioration in the relationships of the main players is sympathetically played out. Keener and Seymour Hoffman are especially in tune as the tested husband and wife, but the plot arguably takes one credulity-testing step too far in an otherwise down-to-earth and credible story arc. Nevertheless this is a satisfyingly enjoyable composition through all three movements, building to a fitting crescendo that succeeds in reminding us that music has the power to transcend all mere earthbound problems.

★ ★ ★

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