‘A Late Quartet’ directed by Yaron Zilberman is a delightful film. It has no big marketing budget; it has no special effects and no epic battle scenes. This is precisely why I found it to be so refreshing. It is about beautiful music and the relationships of those gifted people that create it. It is very melodramatic yet the story and performances are so engrossing. Zilberman co-wrote the witty and solemn script. Like a talented musical quartet, the film draws on the talents of a stellar ensemble cast. There are no standout performances because every last character is brilliantly played with an intense bravado. The backdrop for the story is a snow-covered Manhattan that would make Woody Allen proud.
The story is about a celebrated New York string quartet that finds itself at the crossroads when the eldest member Peter (Christopher Walken) announces he will be retiring soon due to health issues. The members of the quartet include Juliette (Catherine Keener); her husband Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Daniel (Mark Ivanir). They are understandably shocked. They have been playing chamber music together for 25 years. Like a great classical piece, the story is paced extremely well. Zilberman throws in scenes (an auction for a vintage violin, references to Juilliard, and a trip to a farm to select horse hairs for a bow) that give it just the right amount of authenticity.
It is nice to see Christopher Walken in a role that goes against the stereotypical psychopaths he usually is forced to play. He is playing a thoughtful role as an aging artist gracefully putting his celebrated career into perspective. It is the news of his impending retirement that causes disharmony among the quartet members. It is this discontent that begins surfacing that makes this story so engaging. Robert voices his dissatisfaction at playing second violin within the group. His wife Juliette is sickened by his poor timing. Her immediate concern is Peter’s ailing health. Making matters worse is that Daniel is attracted to Robert and Juliet’s gorgeous college-aged daughter Alexandra.
There is a comical scene in the movie of Daniel escaping down a fire escape as Juliet comes up to see Alexandra’s new bohemian apartment. Alexandra proceeds to tell her mother that her childhood was awful because she had to play second-fiddle to Juliet’s viola. She says some hurtful words to her mother. It is not overplayed at all. Quite a few daughters feel like their mothers could have done a better job raising them. Juliet tells her that she did the best that she could. It sets the tone for Alexandra’s life as a musician too. Alexandra is a gifted violin player and knows deep down she will follow in her parent’s footsteps living the life of a musician.
The performances are first-rate. It is always fun to watch Philip Seymour Hoffman perform in a little film. It makes you realize why he is one of the best actors of his generation. Catherine Keener (Being John Malkovich) teams up once again with Hoffman. They both starred in the highly acclaimed movie, ‘Capote’ and Charlie Kaufman’s overlooked ‘Synecdoche, New York.’ Another noteworthy performance is child prodigy Alexandra played magnificently by Imogene Poot. She is an up-and-coming actress to watch in Hollywood.
Zilberman does a clever job of using classical music as a metaphor. When the quartet performs Beethoven’s celebrated Quartet in C sharp minor, the music will grab you emotionally. That is the beauty of this film. It makes you appreciate the blood, sweat, and tears that goes into a classical masterpiece. ‘A Late Quartet’ is now available in stores on DVD and Blu-ray http://www.alatequartet.com/.