Written by Seth Grossman and Yaron Zilberman
Directed by Yaron Zilberman
Starring Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener and Mark Ivanir
At the onset of first time narrative filmmaker, Yaron Zilberman’s A LATE QUARTET, Peter Mitchell (Christopher Walken), tells his Juilliard class the story of Beethoven’s “Opus 131”. This particular piece, written specifically for a string quartet, is a challenge for even the most seasoned musician. For Beethoven wrote it without any places to break throughout the atypical seven movements. Peter, a celebrated cellist himself, asks his class to imagine what it must be like to get through such a piece, what with no opportunity to retune your instrument while playing non-stop. He asks his class but in fact, it is Zilberman’s audience that is truly being asked the question. A LATE QUARTET is his answer.
The Fugues is a string quartet that has been performing together for now 25 years. The players that make it up are some of the finest in the world and the same can be said for the actors portraying them. Walken, who anchors this emotionally unwieldy film, is joined by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener and the reasonably lesser know, Mark Ivanir. When we first meet them, it is evident that they are a close group, that they know how each other plays and how to play together while elevating the group as a whole. Musical symbolism is abound in A LATE QUARTET - Is first violin higher in rank than second? Is it better to play perfectly or to take risks? - and, at first, the questions are subtle and insightful. As time goes on, say around the third or fourth movement, if you will, Zilberman starts to lean toward the melodramatic. Suddenly, this composed, elegant effort is turning into a “VH1 Behind the Music” special for the classical crowd.
As the quartet readies for their 25th season, Peter, who is much older than the remaining members, is diagnosed with the early stages of Parkinson’s. As he respects the music above all else, he announces to his longtime friends and colleagues that he will do everything in his power to play with them on their first concert, but that this will be his last. Naturally, this throws everyone off and the question becomes whether the quartet should continue at all. This threat to the comfort and world they’ve all known for so long brings all of their insecurities to the surface and poses the film’s most pertinent question about the role of the individual within a larger group. With so much emotion to balance, Zilberman demonstrates great promise as a director but he still needs some more practice before he tackles his next opus.