A Late Quartet: Cue the strings

A stellar cast (Christopher Walken, Catherine Keener, Philip Seymour Hoffman) carries a melodramatic film about a veteran string quartet.

A string quartet is like any social ecosystem. When one player shifts, so does everyone.

Yaron Zilberman’s first fiction feature peeks into the backstage life of a veteran string quartet as they rehearse for their 25th anniversary concert: a performance of Beethoven’s challenging String Quartet in C Minor, Opus 131.

The quartet’s cellist (Christopher Walken), recently widowed, is diagnosed with Parkinson’s. His imminent departure provokes the other players to reimagine their lives: the technical-minded first violinist (Mark Ivanir) indulges his passionate side; the backseat second violinist (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) wants a chance in the limelight; the violist (Catherine Keener) reconsiders her marriage. Each shift throws the others off balance. Will the quartet survive to play Opus 131?

Zilberman plays up the parallel between a string quartet and a dysfunctional family. Keener and Hoffman are husband and wife, and their daughter (Imogen Poots) becomes a fifth wheel. Then there’s the fact that Keener was unofficially adopted by Walken as a teenager. This a claustrophobic narrative, both emotionally and physically (characters rarely stray outdoors). Zilberman wrote a play, not a movie.

This was probably lucky. Zilberman’s skills as a screenwriter and film director are outmatched by those of his actors. This talky script allows the stellar cast to carry the movie. It’s especially fun to see Walken and Kenner play against type: Walken’s brain breaks down, but he’s not mentally unstable; a soft-spoken Kenner is the confidante and heart of the quartet. Their problems are sometimes trite, unrealistic, uninteresting or glossed over (as in the case of Walken’s diagnosis), but each character is alive and believable.

Beethoven’s piece is made up of seven movements that should be played without a pause. This means that the players slowly go out of tune with each other over the performance. The music serves as a frame for A Late Quartet, which unrolls over seven arcs that match the temperaments of each movement.

This is a clever idea, but the music is the biggest disappointment. Not Beethoven’s score: it’s more modern than the storyline. But it’s too bad that this homage to music does little to make the music exciting. The actors studied with real string players; they even have telltale “string player hickeys” on their necks. Somehow, though, their syncing to the real music (played by the Brentano String Quartet) is unconvincing, and much worse, watching these great actors play instruments is boring. Case in point: when Nina Lee, a real cellist, plays onscreen, she steals the show.

A Late Quartet is moving and strongly acted. It captures the toll that self-interest takes on families. But it can’t help fulfilling a stereotype — which is mostly wrong — about classical Romantic music: that it’s melodramatic and predictable. ■

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