a l a t e q u a r t e t
5th April 2013
Seymour Hoffman, Walken
13 April 2013
Sublimely acted and tremendously moving, Yaron Silberman's A Late Quartet is film about passion, music and love in all of it's forms.
The first scene A Late Quartet is of the eponymous quartet settling down to play. It's a quiet scene, they give each other lingering looks and then we cut away. At the end of the film this scene is replayed and is now immensely powerful as we understand the looks, the silences. Powerful stuff indeed.
In an opening scene, music teacher Peter (Christopher Walken) reads an excerpt from TS Elliot's Four Quartets as he is introducing them to Beethoven's Op 131, No 14 in C sharp minor. The lines are all about time passing, eternity, opportunity. It's recited in an almost conversational fashion and immediately makes us warm to this intelligent and creative man. As well as teaching Peter has been cellist in perennially popular, somewhat self important string quartet The Fugue (a fugue is a contrapuntal compositional technique in two or more voices). It is to be their extremely impressive 25th Season playing together. At a practice Peter just can't seem to co-ordinate his body like normal, and they postpone, you feel they have never postponed practicing. A visit to the a kindly doctor (lovely Madhur Jaffrey) confirms the worst, he has early Alzheimers. The news devastates but also makes the others ponder their fates, both as people and musicians. It brings to the surface unsaid problems in the group that had been simmering for years, threatening the chance of them ever playing together again.
Beethoven's Op 131, No 14 in C sharp minor is a central part of this film. The fact that it is supposed to be played attacca (without any breaks between the movements) is a central issue. First violinist Daniel (Mark Ivanir) an uptight and controlling man, wants to play it as they always have, with his notes as a safety blanket. Second violinist Robert, childlike and restless (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) wishes to take some risks, mix it up a bit, play without notes. Viola player Juliette is in the middle of the two men emotionally and also the closest one to Peter. It is her presence that we imagine has helped the group stay together so long, the calming, emotional supportive one. However she is incredibly cold to Robert in tense scene in a taxi and this leads him off down a most self destructive path that is perhaps the singularly most reckless act of the film. Although this is hotly contested by Daniel becoming involved with Juliette and Robert's daughter, Alexandra (a great role for Brit Imogen Poots). The underlying tensions between the two violinists have remained dormant for 25 years but after Peter's diagnosis things quickly to seed. Robert has the most complete journey of any of the four characters as he has the most to go through but each of the three goes through some emotional awakenings before the film is out. The mother daughter relationship between Alexandra and Juliette provides two fantastic scenes one with Alexandra confronting her mother in the most brutally honest fashion and the other when Alexandra sees her mother talk about her on an interview and finally begins to understand. Although these scenes are wonderful it was Catherine Keener's character that I felt lacked a little something, I didn't feel like I entirely got to know her which is shame because Keener is a fantastic actor. All of the actors make believable virtuoso musicians, apparently Hoffman could actually play pretty well by the end of the production (course he could) and he does look the most at home but they all should be commended.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman really is something in this film. Robert is a blessing of a character and is certainly the one with the most completed character arc. Still, what Hoffman does here is really something special. This is the second film where I have seen Walken be more contemplative, Seven Psychopaths being the other. It suits him this more contained style. The loss of Miriam, the love of Peter's life, his illness and now potentially the loss of the other love of his life – playing cello. It's heartbreaking to watch and handled with majestic dignity by Walken and Silberman.
Frederick Elms has done a great job with the cinematography, New York looks picture perfectly romantic glistening in the snow. Production designer John Karsada has created beautiful, believable worlds for these characters, every location rings true from Daniel's brick exposed man pad to Robert's seedy hotel room he is banished to after his indiscretion. Although a film about classical musicians may not need much in the way of score to impress, Angelo Badalementi has created a wonderful score to accompany the classics.
The beauty of this film is, like one of The Fugue's concerts, it starts slowly, builds to a crescendo and then returns to quietness. It's well directed by documentary maker Silberman and sublimely played by four actors at the top of their game.