After 25 years of musical collaboration and critical acclaim, successfulstring quartet, The Fugue, finds itself under threat when cellist Peter (Christopher Walken) announces during rehearsal that he’s just been diagnosed with the early onset of Parkinson’s disease and that he intends to retire as soon as possible, even going so far as to suggest appropriate replacements.
Long the backbone of the group, Peter’s shattering revelation throws the others into turmoil as simmering tensions, long-nursed resentments and buried desires come bubbling to the surface. 2nd violinist Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman) feels it’s about time he had a turn in the Sun as 1st chair, much to the consternation of arrogant, diva-esque 1st violinist Daniel (Mark Ivanir). Caught between them is founding member and violist Juliette (Catherine Keener); Robert’s wife and Daniel’s one-time lover.
Unsure if it’s even worth continuing to perform without surrogate father-figure Peter, Juliette’s refusal to support Robert’s ambitions exposes the cracks in their stale marriage and drives Robert into the arms of sultry dancer and running partner Pilar (Liraz Charhi), inspiring him to take their jogging to a more horizontal plane. Daniel meanwhile, a taciturn perfectionist who prizes technical precision over emotion, begins an ill-judged affair with Peter’s vivacious young student Alexandra (Imogen Poots) whom he’s tutoring. Alexandra also happens to be Robert and Juliette’s daughter.
As the group dissolves into recrimination and infighting threatens to tear them apart, can they find a way to keep it together and perform one last time as a foursome at Peter’s farewell gig?
Not to be confused with Dustin Hoffman’s similarly-themed Quartet, which saw a bunch of old duffers (Maggie Smith, Pauline Collins, Tom Courtenay andBilly Connolly. Aye, The Big Yin…) in a retirement home for aged musicians get the band back together for one last gig, Yaron Silberman’s A Late Quartetis a handsome, slow-burning, cerebral meditation on art, love and mid-life crisis whose soapier elements are (just!) kept in check by its wonderful ensemble cast. Yes, at its heart it’s a film about posh, rich, middle class musos in crisis BUT it’s a deeply felt film about posh, rich, middle class musos in crisis. None of the characters are particularly likable (with the exception of Walken and possibly Poots) but the emotional storms this incestuous group weather at least make them sympathetic and Zilberman and screenwriter Seth Grossman make the philosophical artistic battle for the group’s soul between the emotional, free-spirited Robert and remote, tightly-wound, control freak Daniel as central to the film as Robert’s infidelity, Juliette’s dissatisfaction and frustration or Daniel’s emotional aloofness.
Walken glides lightly through the film on his dancer’s feet, a commanding presence and strong emotional core, in perhaps his most understated, un-Walken like performance and Keener is brilliantly brittle as Juliette, a woman weighed down by bitterness and frustration, the might’ve-beens that nibble at her comfortable, boring, unfulfilled life and the nagging knowledge that a life on the road as a touring musician perhaps irreparably damaged her relationship with daughter Poots who is as luminous as ever, her impulsive affair with Daniel more an act of revenge against her parents for their neglect of her during their years of touring.
As the cold, inscrutable perfectionist slowly thawing, Ivanir’s emotional naïveté leaves him almost fair game for the more worldly teenage Poots but it’s Hoffman who truly engages in one of his finest performances in years. His Robert is a petulant, emotional, wounded teddy bear of a man whose unthinking reaction upon learning that his wife may never have loved him is to devastate his life even further by having a one-night stand he makes no effort to conceal, an act fuelled as much by his own thwarted ambitions and her lack of support as it is by her perceived lack of love.
Restrained, adult and intelligent, A Late Quartet skillfully hits all the right notes but is brave enough not to tie up every loose end leaving you with a satisfying emotional crescendo, if not a literal resolution.