The impending season of carols and chestnuts is also a favourite time to resurrect the clichés of the backstage classical artist drama. A couple of years ago, we had Darren Aronofsky’s ballet movie Black Swan. This year, it’s A Late Quartet, a drama about the members of a string quartet facing a midlife artistic crisis.
Set in a Woody Allen-like privileged Manhattan world of elegant apartments, cab-ride conversations and cool-weather jogs in Central Park, the film is shaped like a musical composition. It begins on an attention-grabbing note, then races through a whirlwind of emotional complexities before coming to a solemn, elevated resolution. The screenplay by Seth Grossman and Israeli-American director Yaron Zilberman is old-fashioned and melodramatic but stirring in its portrait of people struggling with individual egos to produce something nobler than themselves.
Christopher Walken is irresistible in an uncharacteristic role as a gentle, aging artist struggling for perspective on his life’s work. His character is Peter Mitchell, a cellist and leader of a chamber quartet called The Fugue, which is about to celebrate its 25th concert season. Peter has recently returned from a hiatus after the death of his wife (singer Anne Sofie von Otter in a brief cameo flashback) when he discovers he is having trouble making his fingers do what he needs them to do. A visit to the doctor reveals that he is in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease. Walken, who was schooled as a dancer rather than a musician, demonstrates his own impeccable timing. The doctor speaks. A pause. “Wow,” says Peter, with an exhalation like a soft pop.
While Peter remains calm and determined to plan for the future, his fellow musicians are thrown into emotional discord. Long-simmering resentments between the second violinist, Robert Gelbart (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and the intense first violinist, Daniel (Mark Ivanir), rise to a boil; Robert, who believes he is a more passionate player than the technical Daniel, wants to alternate the first violin position. Daniel declares that Robert is just not good enough. Robert’s wife, Juliet (Catherine Keener), the quartet’s violist, is devastated by the news of Peter’s illness – he is not just a mentor but a father figure. She is witheringly dismissive of her husband’s terrible timing, which sends him into the arms of (no kidding) a flamenco dancer. Meanwhile, the Gelbarts’ tempestuous daughter (Imogen Poots), a violin student of Daniel’s, finds a surefire way of getting her distracted parents’ attention.
These are the kinds of roles we have seen Hoffman (resentful, disappointed) and Keener (cold with rage) play before, but both actors make the familiar feel fresh. Walken, in contrast, is a surprise, with the tentative hypersensitivity of a man who has recently been stripped of his skin. He proposes that, as a farewell gesture to his career, the ensemble perform Beethoven’s celebrated Quartet in C sharp minor (Op. 131). As he explains to a music class, this technically and physically demanding work must be played without pauses for more than 40 minutes, leaving the musicians with no time to retune.
Done badly, Peter says, the piece can end up “a mess.” The metaphor of music as life isn’t subtle: “What are we supposed to do?” Peter asks of Beethoven’s quartet. “Stop. Or to continuously adjust to each other up to the end, even if we are out of tune?”
Zilberman has made one previous film, the 2004 documentary Watermarks, about a Jewish women’s swim team in 1930s Austria. It is his documentarian’s instincts that give A Late Quartet its balance. Running as a sort of counterpoint to the movie’s melodramatic structure are the pragmatic scenes of the musical life: an anecdote about cellist Pablo Casals, a violin auction, a visit to a farm to select horse hairs for a bow. Though the art involves conjuring passions written on paper almost two centuries ago, we also see that making music is a hands-on, body-temperature, modern activity.