A Late Quartet

In DVD/Blu-ray by Peter D. Marsay

A Late Quartet is a model of class, directed with confidence, acted to perfection and boasting a rare and potent classical soundtrack.  First time director Yaron Zilberman explores the subculture of classical musicians, their dreams, passions and the intimacy fanned by their intense working relationships.

The Fugue Quartet have toured the world for a quarter century, garnering fame and critical acclaim.  Their lives are thrown into turmoil when cellist Peter Mitchell (Christopher Walken) announces that he has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and won’t be able to play with them much longer.  As the group faces the touchy dilemma of who to replace him with and when, old rivalries rear their heads and the quartet’s future looks bleak.

As first violin, Mark Ivanir’s character Daniel leads the quartet, and if there were an equivalent position among the foursome of thespians it must be Walken, soaring at the top of his game, all but devouring the screen with his powerful presence.  Like their instruments the actors are finely tuned, their emotions no less exquisite and true than the notes played on their strings.  It’s a master class in acting, a real joy watch.  Philip Seymour Hoffman is typically brilliant, and Catherine Keener is a minor revelation, as she is in every film in which she appears.

The script by Zilberman and Seth Grossman occasionally flirts with the wrong side of melodrama, but the direction and acting keep things heartfelt.  Zilberman shows the signs of a far more experienced filmmaker than he actually is, this being his first narrative film; his only previous cinematic work is the 2004 documentary Watermarks, about an Austrian Jewish womens’ swimming team in the 1930s.  The word ‘versatile’ comes to mind.

The director compares the way the characters handle their personal struggles, with the way in which a quartet must plough on through a difficult piece of music.  The Fugue choose Beethoven’s infamously challenging String Quartet No. 14 for their climactic performance and though Peter arguably faces the grimmest trial of all, it’s his steadiness and wisdom that the others must look to if they are to have a chance of pulling through with their beloved quartet intact.

One of the most affecting insights the film brings is of the respect that the musicians have for each other’s talent, despite the differences and betrayals raging on behind the scenes.  The sacrifices they make out of commitment to the belief that it is more special to be part of the whole than to be recognised individually is refreshing in an age that at all costs celebrates the importance of taking care of number one.

Zilberman’s delicate tale of ego, sex, sickness and music will delight music and film fans alike.  There are moments it’s obvious the actors aren’t really playing their instruments, but that’s a small flaw in a first rate film that offers a poignant and heartbreaking perspective on the world of classical musicians.