The most striking element of A Late Quartet is the sheer austerity of the performances; Philip Seymour Hoffman and Christopher Walken are giants of their trade and are both at the top of their game here. However, there’s actually much more to admire than some great acting in this quietly powerful, diamond-in-the-rough of a movie.
The second film of the relatively unknown Yaron Zilberman’s career, A Late Quartet is a very middle class proposition; charting the fracturing relationships between members of a long-standing string quartet as they approach their 25th year together. When the father figure of the group, Peter (Walken), is diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease he announces that the opening night of their tour will be his last performance with the group. From this simple narrative premise the film proceeds to unveil, at times masterfully, the long-standing complications, grudges and cloistered sadnesses that cling at the roots of the quartet’s bonds with one another.
After his towering performance in The Master, Philip Seymour Hoffman takes to the part of Robert, the quartet’s second violinist, with characteristic, well, mastery. As always he’s nothing short of astounding, managing to convey the underlying sadness of his character with a nuanced subtlety that’s by portions endearing, by others devastating. Refreshingly Christopher Walken isn’t playing an extroverted, idiosyncratic odd-ball this time around. Instead he takes to the screen with a graceful, soft quiescence, portraying a man whose life comes crashing down before him – leaving him to ruminate upon the fate of the quartet and the ghost of his career. The quartet is completed by Robert’s wife, Juliette (Catherine Keener) on viola and the furiously competitive first violinist Daniel Lerner (Mark Ivanir).
When Peter breaks the bad news to the group, its cohesive structure begins to breakdown by way of adultery, poisonous rivalries as well as a string of deep rooted grudges and psychological inferiority complexes. While on paper this all sounds like a fairly proto-typical ‘drama’, and in some ways it really is, the film miraculously manages to avoid schmaltz. Through reserved direction and sublime performances, A Late Quartet manages to penetrate straight to the core of its characters’ emotional fabric; creating some truly moving moments in the process.
Zilberman’s soft directorial approach lends the film a calm, reserved and charmingly antiquated tone which is flatteringly comparable the early work of Woody Allen – particularly Interiors and Hannah & Her Sisters in its focus on the trials and tribulations of New York’s artistic elite.
As one might expect from a film about a classical string quartet – the focus on classical music, particularly Beethoven’s Opus 131 in C-Minor, is pervasive. However, while Beethoven dominates the score, it would be all too easy to forget the work of Angelo Badalamenti on the soundtrack. The Italian maestro (and man behind the scores for much of David Lynch’s work – including Twin Peaks) is on top form and provides a superbly engaging musical accompaniment that’s both arresting and moving at once.
In spite of a distracting and reductively predictable sub-plot about a relationship between first violinist Daniel and second violinist Robert’s daughter, the film is, for the most part, a triumph. Come its startling narrative crescendo A Late Quartet produces some certifiable lumps in throats, and maybe even the odd damp cheek. Rarely overly melodramatic and often keenly insightful, this film turns out to be a real gem.
A Late Quartet is a simultaneous release with Sky Store and Curzon Home Cinema on 5 April.