Teams of string coaches were deployed to make this quartet of actors look like they knew what they are doing with their instruments, but no critic has noticed how completely unrelated the motions of their left hands—finger placement and vibrato—are to the music that is played, with the exception of Christopher Walken, who looks like he is playing his cello correctly and producing real music.
A Late Quartet. Directed and co-written by Yaron Zilberman. At cinemas throughout New England.
By Susan Miron.
A Late Quartet has received lots of attention and good reviews due, in large part, to the fame of three of its actors, who depict the string players in the ridiculously-named Fugue Quartet.
The Quartet has celebrated a quarter century together when their aging cellist (Christopher Walken) announces to the group that he has Parkinson’s and, at best, can play the opening concert of the next season. What ensues is a highly emotional soap opera that inexorably alters the interpersonal relations of the other quartet members (the excellent Mark Ivanir as first violin, Philip Seymour Hoffman as the dissatisfied second violin, and Catherine Keener as the violist married to Hoffman). Walken wins the acting honors here: he is the image of dignified perfection. Clearly, the cellist was the glue that held the group together, and the idea of the quartet without him not only destabilizes the music-making but the marriage between the second violin and his wife, the violist, who looked to Walken as a father figure personally as well as musically.
A huge rift arises because the longtime second violinist (Hoffman) desperately wants to play first violin, even if only half the time. This desire of the second violin to occasionally play first violin occurs in real life, but there are more elegant solutions than those explored in the movie. The one group where this kind of exchange has worked is the Emerson Quartet, who has alternated their first and second violins since their formation. (Coincidentally, this year the Emerson Quarter is losing and replacing their cellist of 30 years.) One answer is for the dissatisfied member is to play violin in a piano trio or some other ensemble in addition to the quartet or to find another quartet that needs a first violin. When his violist wife (they have a long marriage and a grown daughter) offers him no support, Hoffman’s character freaks out. This leads to a sordid one night stand with the violinist’s jogging partner; what’s more, he leaves his violin at the bar. His wife quickly figures out about his betrayal and leaves him. Meanwhile, the group’s first violinist falls madly in love, or lust, with their daughter Alexandra, a gorgeous violinist (Imogen Poots) fresh out of music school.
Teams of string coaches were deployed to make this quartet of actors look like they knew what they are doing with their instruments, but no other critic (and I have read over 20 reviews) has noticed how completely unrelated the motions of their left hands—finger placement and vibrato—are to the music that is played, with the exception of Walken, who looks like he is playing his cello correctly and producing real music.
Walken is the quiet center of the quartet and the movie. There is a moving scene at a music school when the cellist talks about how in his youth he played two movements of a Bach composition horribly for Pablo Casals, who said yes, very nice. He didn’t understand what Casals heard. Much later the cellist quizzes Casals about the comment: the latter tells Walken’s character that he had used an expressive fingering and articulation that Casals had never thought of. Another great moment is when the cellist’s neurologist tells him, shockingly, that he has early stage Parkinson’s. He replies simply, “Wow.” The cellist’s opera singer wife has died a year ago, and in one scene, Walken makes the man’s loneliness palpable as he listens to her on a recording (it is the great Anne Sophie von Otter).
Beethoven’s Quartet in C Sharp minor, Op. 131 (in seven movements) is both the music that sequentially runs through the film and the piece programmed for the last time the group’s longtime cellist is slated to perform with the quartet. One of Beethoven’s Late Quartets, it is beloved by many composers, including, as is pointed out in the movie, Schubert, who requested the piece be played as he was dying. It encompasses a world of music, including fugues, which must have given the writers the idea of calling their fictive quartet Fugue.
The New York we are often used to seeing in Woody Allen movies is portrayed here with heart-stopping beauty. The musical heroes of the movie are the excellent Brentano Quartet, the musical pros behind the actors and performing the soundtrack interludes. The acting of the quartet of Ivanir, Hoffman, Keener, and Walken is extraordinarily fine. Keener and Hoffman performed together in Capote, and they are convincing as a married couple who break into an angry and sad separation. In particular, I will remember A Late Quartet for every moment Walken was present and for the acting of Keener, whose face—not her viola playing as they say in the movie—can make you cry, even if you don’t know why. A lovely movie.