The title of A Late Quartet holds at least two meanings, one to do with Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14, Opus 131, written during the final year of the composer’s life, and one to do with the musicians at the film’s center, celebrated collaborators for some 25 years who suddenly find themselves splintering apart due to a mixture of illness, professional dissatisfaction and marital strife. From a cool distance, much of the drama looks fairly conventional, even soapy. The script, by director Yaron Zilberman and co-scenarist Seth Grossman, is a tidy arrangement of rising tensions and carefully graded complexities, of betrayals, struggles and fresh alliances. The four protagonists (plus one—there is a young budding musician added to the mix) allows for a tasteful, not too busy amount of shifting between narrative threads. But I think A Late Quartet transcends its conventions in more ways than one. It’s the product of a filmmaker who clearly believes in the integrity of great music and of the musicians who devote their lives to bringing great music to fierce, fluid, glorious life. It doesn’t hurt that the actors are uniformly superb.
Peter (Christopher Walken), the cellist, is the Fugue Quartet’s eldest member, a widower who learns he’s experiencing the early stages of Parkinson’s. For Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the news of Peter’s condition functions as a reminder of life’s bracing brevity; Robert’s weary of being second violinist, of being an underappreciated husband to violist Juliette (Catherine Keener), of having the group constantly take its cues from Daniel (Mark Ivanir), the rather stodgy first violinist, who always chooses perfection over passion—though his passions seem set to be awakened by Alexandra (Imogen Poots), his attractive, assured young student, who also happens to be Robert and Juliette’s daughter. Despite Peter’s affliction the group chooses to forge ahead with a planned performance of the Opus 131, a challenging, gorgeously detailed piece of approximately 40 minutes which demands that each of the musicians play at a brisk pace, without pause even to retune. There’s an engaging, relaxed scene in which Peter tells his class an anecdote about a misunderstanding he once had with Pablo Casals; the moral of the story is to never underestimate the potential for innovation or freshness in what seem in the moment like mistakes. But Peter’s too long in the tooth to allow himself to fumble his way through a piece of music he reveres, or to diminish the power of what he and his colleagues have worked so hard to develop.
The final scene of A Late Quartet, very nicely cut together by Yuval Shar (from coverage shot by the great Frederick Elmes), is thus very moving not only for the beauty of Beethoven’s music or the actors’ performances or our familiarity with the characters and their individual problems, but because, whether or not we know anything about music, we’ve also been led to understand what at stake artistically. This is a film about what it means to be an artist, the sacrifices made, the heights that can be reached, the discoveries made along the way. None of this is a revelation, but it is wise. And Walken most especially is at his best here. His strange cadences and embodying of jumbled emotions are a kind of music all their own. Walken alone is reason to see (and hear) this film.