01 April 2013

Highly Strung: A Late Quartet Review

I saw Yaron Silberman's movie A Late Quartet way back in January as part of a cinema 'spring preview' for journalists and bloggers, and it's finally out in the UK this week. I had heard nothing of the movie before heading into the screening and was initially worried it was the similarly titled Quartet, which wasn't really my cup of tea. I'm not sure A Late Quartet will be to everyone's taste either, but if you're in the mood for a tightly scripted, well acted film, then you might like it; if you happen to be a classical music buff—and I'm not—so much the better.

Mark Ivanir, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener & Christopher Walken in A Late Quartet. Image.

The Fugue Quartet have been playing together for 25 years when Peter (Christopher Walken) is diagnosed with early-stage Parkinson's disease. He decides he will perform in one last concert with group, as they play Beethoven's Late String Quartets, before he retires. The film is about what this discovery does to the group, as it highlights long-standing tensions and triggers new conflicts among the four players. Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is the second violin player with the inferiority complex. Peter's news and the subsequent changes to the quartet it will entail leads Robert to suggest that he and first violin Daniel (Mark Ivanir) alternate. "The second and first violins aren't hierarchical; they are just different roles," he explains. Robert is also having problems with his wife Juliette (Catherine Keener), the viola player. He has always been jealous of her relationships with Peter and Daniel, and he begins an affair with another musician. "You took this whole alternate chairs theme a little too far," Juliette snaps.

Meanwhile Robert and Juliette's daughter Alexandra (Imogen Poots) is receiving violin tuition—and, it turns out, a whole lot more—from Daniel. Both Alexandra and Daniel are keen to hide their relationship from Robert and Juliette, but no secret can stay hidden for very long in this movie, and its revelation only complicates things further, both within the quartet and within Alexandra's family. And with so much drama and Peter's worsening condition, can they all keep it together for the quartet's swan song?

A Late Quartet is a film about obsession, drive and the single-mindedness musicians need to succeed. You can see the ambition and the dedication on the faces of each of the actors as they play their instruments, especially Keener as her character is betrayed by each of the others in turn, in different ways. I thought Ivanov was perhaps the weak link of the four, but I am a fan of Walken and Seymour Hoffman, and the chemistry between all four actors worked rather well. It is definitely a film for music lovers, but although there were probably references that went over my head, it didn't stop me from enjoying a piece of work that was subtly emotional. A Late Quartet is also a very New Yorky film, with the Lincoln Center and Central Park featuring prominently; I also enjoyed the cameo of the Frick Collection, one of my favourite New York galleries, and apparently this is the first time the Frick has granted permission for a movie to film inside.

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