Film review: A Late Quartet

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FOR 25 years, the Fugue String Quartet have been famous and feted for their performances, but when Peter (Christopher Walken) notices a weakness in his hand while playing his cello, a diagnosis of Parkinson’s breaks up their harmony.

A Late Quartet (15)

Director: Yaron Zilberman

Running time: 105 minutes


Peter has been the steadying force both musically and emotionally, and the retirement of their oldest member upsets his highly strung colleagues.

It turns out second violinist Robert Gelbart (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has been casting covetous eyes on the starrier role of first violinist, Daniel Lerner (Mark Ivanir). However, Robert’s wife Juliette (Catherine Keener) refuses to back him, and accuses him of trying to destroy the group’s tempo.

Soon the artistes are striking increasingly discordant notes: Robert has a vengeful fling. Daniel, meanwhile, begins an affair with the Gelbart’s 22- year-old daughter (Imogen Poots, right). Catherine is furious with both her husband and Daniel, who happens to be her ex-lover. In the face of this Wagnerian Sturm und Drang, Peter retreats, still grieving for his wife Miriam (Anne Sofie von Otter).

Late Quartet is a gigantic metaphor, shaped around the group’s decision to play Beet­hoven’s Quartet in C Sharp ­Minor (Op. 131), which gets talked about with the same reverent fearfulness that Shine reserved for Rachmaninov. Chamber pieces have few solos, so everyone is locked into partnership, and this particular piece goes on for 40 minutes without pause. The difficulty, Peter explains to a music class, is that this means the musicians struggle to continually adjust to each other until the end, “even if we are out of tune”. You would have to be tone deaf not to pick up what life lesson is being played to the gallery here.

A former documentary maker, Yaron Zilberman goes fortissimo on such notes, but he also knows when to shut up and let the camera play out an expressive look or gesture. There’s a brilliant moment where Hoffman realises he is about to be caught in the middle of a two-way lie, and in a few seconds panic, a search for a cover story, resolution and eventually resignation flash across his face.

Like a familiar piece of music, the pleasure of Late Quartet lies in watching accomplished performers do their thing. None of the actors are particularly good at faking their instruments during the concert scenes – Walken is a standout here, but he might as well be playing double bass for the Stray Cats – yet they are nicely in tune as artists whose passionate musical expressiveness counterpoints emotional concealments.

It’s easy to dismiss Zilberman’s film as a bit soapy and self-conscious, but I enjoyed the script’s bookish digressions into the importance of a second violinist in pulling together and showcasing the rest of a quartet, the craftsmanship behind horsehair bows, and biographical nuggets about TS Eliot and Schubert. Late Quartet has the feel of a good Sunday afternoon with Radio 3.

• On general release from Friday