Israeli director Yaron Zilberman turns his eye toward a musically-themed drama in A Late Quartet. As his quartet reaches its 25th anniversary, cellist Peter Mitchell (Christopher Walken) is diagnosed with early onset Parkinson’s disease. Declaring his intention to make their next performance his last, fellow members second violinist Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman), his wife viola player Juliette (Catherine Keener) and their perfectionist first violinist Daniel (Mark Ivanir) see their rivalries and personal problems bubbling to the surface, threatening the future of the group.
The stellar cast give a fine selection of performances and it’s pleasant to see that they prepared enough to give the impression that they’re actually playing their instruments, even though it’s actually left to the Brentano String Quartet. Catherine Keener is kind but abrasive, while Imogen Poots gives a decent turn as the naÃ¯ve but engaging rebellious teenage daughter of Juliette and Robert. Philip Seymour Hoffman is often excellent, but he tones down his award-winning gravitas to perfectly present the troubled Robert. Mark Ivanir is something of a sensation playing the isolated perfectionist. Encapsulating a character as frustrating as he is endearing is no mean feat and Ivanir, the least known of the cast threatens to walk away with all the plaudits.
It is Christopher Walken however who steals the film as the aging Peter, a man who discovers he has early onset Parkinson disease forcing the imminent breakup of the quartet. For an actor often cast in the role of a villain or gangster he really gets to stretch his formidable talent with this underplayed and thoughtful turn.
For a film about the backstage politics involved in the running of a musical group, A Late Quartet is surprisingly beautiful. The cinematography by Frederick Elmes perfectly captures a hostile New York winter, with snow in exteriors and warmth on the interiors. Scenes are carefully considered and never overstep the drama, instead adding to the dramatic thrust. The music, consisting mainly of classical pieces from the likes of Beethoven are as complimentary as you would imagine.
The only area where Zilberman and A Late Quartet struggle is in the shifts of tone, sometimes drifting into needless melodrama, which briefly diminishes the overall impact. There is one scene in particular involving an argument between Keener and Poots that breaks the form of the rest of the film and lazily slides into high-pitched overwrought shouting, which could have been played with more subtlety. But with such a cast on form in a film that delivers in terms of depth and character growth, it’s tough to criticise it too much.
This is a powerful drama that delivers its message perfectly, that a group, regardless of personal problems can be stronger than the parts are individually. A Late Quartet is a grown-up drama, about grown up people. It doesn’t rely on the common individualism that plagues so much of Hollywood’s output and presents itself as immaculately as the quartet presents Beethoven’s Op. 131.