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Film review: High-strung string players resonate in ‘A Late Quartet’

You knew something was amiss in Yaron Zilberman’s terrific new film the moment his fictional Fugue Quartet appeared onstage. Actor Philip Seymour Hoffman bowed politely and then sat promptly in the second violinist’s chair. But wait, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays second fiddle to no man.

The rivalry between the first and second violinists is just part of the dysfunction that threatens to tear apart the Fugue Quartet, the ensemble at the center of Zilberman’s brilliantly acted movie, A Late Quartet. These high-strung musicians are libidinous egomaniacs. They are quarrelsome, meddlesome, thoughtless and insensitive. Like one big maladjusted family, they are also passionately bonded to one another.

In interviews, Zilberman said he wanted to make a “relationship drama,” a film that explored the complex bonds uniting parents and children, old friends and long-term married couples. Interestingly, these enduring unions reminded Zilberman of the classical string quartet.

This most intimate style of music (originally intended for small drawing rooms, not concert halls) requires the four string musicians to listen to one another, cooperate and compromise. In chamber music, the need for individual self-expression must always give way to common goals. Quartet musicians must think and play as one.

And if there’s one piece in the vast chamber repertoire that exemplifies the need for absolute unity of purpose, it’s Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 131. This autumnal masterpiece – 40 minutes of the most complex, life-affirming music ever written – serves as both the central soundtrack and metaphor in the film.

Beethoven directed the musicians to play this work’s seven movements “attacca,” that is, without pause. Violins, violas and cellos invariably go out of tune during such extended play, but in Op. 131 the musicians can’t stop between movements to make adjustments. Instead, they must struggle to stay together and adapt. It’s kind of like being in a long-term relationship.

Zilberman uses the Brentano String Quartet’s intensely lyrical rendition of Op. 131 in his film. Appropriately enough in a movie about relationships, the Brentano Quartet takes its name from Antonie Brentano, the woman that many music scholars believe was Beethoven’s mysterious and anonymous “Immortal Beloved.” The actors in A Late Quartet do their best to mimic the movements of the Brentano players – each cast member was coached to play various phrases. The disappointing results, however, amount to little more than instrumental pantomime – a sort of highbrow version of Milli Vanilli.

Fortunately, there are no weaknesses in the dramatic performances, which are like a master class in acting. Christopher Walken delivers an especially memorable portrayal of the Fugue’s cellist, Peter Mitchell. A generation older than the quartet’s other players, Mitchell stuns the group when he announces his plan to retire at the start of the ensemble’s 25th anniversary season. He doesn’t want to hang up his cello. But he’s had trouble controlling his fingers during rehearsal, and his doctor informs him he’s in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease. It’s a double blow for Mitchell, who’s been struggling with the recent death of his wife Miriam, a gorgeous mezzo soprano that opera star Anne Sofie von Otter plays in a flashback.

Mitchell, who’s played as a dignified and kindly father figure, wants the quartet to survive. So he handpicks a replacement named Nina Lee (who happens to be the real-life cellist of the Brentano Quartet). But the thought of losing Mitchell throws the other members of the ensemble into disarray.

The quartet’s emotional and all-too-human second violinist, Robert Gelbart (Hoffman), picks this inopportune time to indulge in a major mid-life crisis. He announces that he now wants to share duties with first violinist Daniel Lerner (played admirably by Mark Ivanir), a virtuoso musician whose fiery technique is matched only by his cold personality. Gelbart’s wife, Juliette (Catherine Keener), the group’s violist, belittles the second violinist’s aspirations. In an act of petty revenge, Gelbart has a one-night stand with his jogging buddy, a steamy and sensuous singer played by Liraz Charhi.

Hoffman and Keener proved their chemistry in 2005’s Capote (Hoffman played the title character to Keener’s Harper Lee), and they are just as compelling in A Late Quartet. Keener’s Juliette bristles with rage at her husband’s faithlessness. Hoffman portrays Gelbart as a volatile and insecure musician who’s ruled by his emotions. At one point, he encourages the frosty Daniel Lerner to follow his lead and “unleash your passion.” Lerner does exactly that with the Gelbarts’ daughter, Alexandra (Imogen Poots), which brings this simmering melodrama to a boil.

If A Late Quartet seems like a soap opera, well, it is, but one suspects that Beethoven might have approved. His Op. 131 is remarkably operatic, with movements that call to mind both serious and frivolous Italian arias. Zilberman and screenwriter Seth Grossman capture the episodic nature of Op. 131 in their film, creating lots of short fragmentary scenes that flow logically and inexorably one into the other. Cinematographer Frederick Elmes has given the film a burnished look that suggests a beautifully varnished violin. These are all delightful little details. When combined with great acting and divine music, they form a true magnum opus.

A Late Quartet (www.alatequartet.com) is now playing in Nashville exclusively at the Belcourt Theatre (www.belcourt.org), 2102 Belcourt Ave. Rated R for language and some sexuality, 1 hour 45 min. Directed by Yaron Zilberman; written by Seth Grossman and Zilberman, based on a story by Zilberman. Starring Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Mark Ivanir, Imogen Poots, Liraz Charhi, Madhur Jaffrey, Anne Sofie von Otter and Wallace Shawn.

 

*Photos courtesy Entertainment One Films US and Opening Night Productions.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), ArtNowNashville.com and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.