Film Review: A Late Quartet

In this classy, immersive drama, a renowned string quartet must recalibrate following the illness of its patriarch.

A finely crafted first feature from American-Israeli Yaron Zilberman, A Late Quartet tracks the shakeup in a world-class string quartet called The Fugue when one of its members falls victim to a degenerative disease. Though the screenplay initially feels a tad over-determined, the story-power pumps up the volume in this moving work about the passion to carry forward a musical heritage. Rarely do we see a film delve into the world of dedicated musicians with such insight. Moderate success in urban art houses looks assured, though to judge by America's graying audience for classical music, viewers will skew older. 

The harmony of The Fugue is shattered when Peter Mitchell (Christopher Walken), the quartet's cellist—and wise godfather—discovers that early-stage Parkinson’s is robbing his control of his instrument. Already he's living with one foot in the past following the recent death of his beloved singer wife (Anne-Sophie Mutter in a lovely cameo). His impending retirement unleashes the ambition of second violinist Robert Gelbart (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who's tired of playing, yes, second fiddle to lead violinist and the quartet's founder Daniel Lerner (Mark Ivanir, excellent).

Robert's wife Juliette (Catherine Keener), the group's violist, discourages his hunger to share the spotlight with Daniel as disruptive to The Fugue, and in a fit of wounded pride Robert falls into a one-night stand that imperils their marriage. Meanwhile, the Gelbarts’ daughter Alexandra (Imogen Poots), a talented fiddler in her own right, starts an affair with the reclusive, controlled Daniel, who also happens to be her teacher. Tension mounts as the conflicts between The Fugue's members escalate, yet must somehow be resolved before a gala performance of Beethoven's Quartet Opus 131, reputedly the composer's favorite.

A cross between a close-knit family and a marriage, a venerable string quartet and its inner workings provide fertile ground for drama—in this case spiced with surprising twists. Robert and Juliette seem ideally wed, yet his infidelity opens the floodgates to his simmering resentment of his wife, who's distanced herself from the marriage in favor of the all-consuming Fugue. Chilly, hyper-controlled Daniel takes a chance on loving Alexandra, his much-younger student and colleague's daughter to boot. Yet it's Alexandra, at first flighty and impulsive, who unsheathes a wounding resolve. The friction between Robert and Daniel is compounded by artistic differences: Robert insists they perform Beethoven's monumental string quartet without the score, promoting spontaneity and passion over Daniel's perfectionism—a plot point that flowers into a terrific, suspenseful denouement set in the Metropolitan Museum's Grace Rainey Rogers auditorium.

New York is captured as well by burnished, tasteful interiors, an encounter at the Frick Museum, and scenes set near the snowy Central Park reservoir and at the Time Warner building, a nod at the upmarket Gotham of Woody Allen. Intelligent and serious in tone—except for some occasional sexual high-jinks—A Late Quartet unfolds light years away from the snark, irony and cultivated grossness of much current cinema. And it's precisely the film's assumption of the centrality of music and its depiction of the arduous task of creating it that gives Quartet its polish. The actors are across-the-board superb, with special kudos to lesser-known Ivanir, and they've all been expertly coached in how to make like they're making music. As a bonus, the film includes a soundtrack with glorious snippets from the classical repertoire by top-flight performers.