I had been looking forward to seeing “A Late Quartet” for quite some time. Yaron Zilberman’s 2012 film with its double-edged title referring to both Beethoven’s Opus 131, his last string quartet, and the uncertain future of this group of musicians, has an intriguing premise, not to mention a great cast. Unfortunately, the reality is somewhat disappointing.
As the film opens, the Fugue String Quartet is rehearsing for the start of its 25th anniversary season. In instrument order the musicians are Daniel, first violin (Mark Ivanir), Robert, second violin (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Juliette, viola (Catherine Keener) and Peter, cello (Christopher Walken). We immediately sense that Peter is suffering some type of physical problem, and indeed, within the first few minutes of the film he’s diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. Where does the quartet go from here?
Headfirst into a vat of soap, to be sure. During the course of the movie we encounter (or endure, as the case may be) a number of issues. In no particular order: (1) Daniel and Juliette had a thing during their student days at Julliard (2) She then hit on Robert, got pregnant and married him in record time (3) Daniel is a martinet and perfectionist who runs the quartet as he sees fit, only to turn skeevy when he has an affair with Alexandra, Juliette and Robert’s conservatory student daughter and (4) Robert, having literally played second fiddle to the other three throughout his entire career, gets thrown out of the house after a one-night stand that only happened because Juliette connived with Daniel to turn thumbs-down on his request to play first violin from time to time. Are you still with me?
At this point you may laugh when I say “A Late Quartet” is still worth seeing. Why? Because Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance is phenomenal. His Robert is the most open character in the movie, the guy who started his career as everybody’s afterthought (he was the last player invited to join the quartet) and has remained so ever since in the eyes of his three cohorts. He’s never been certain of Juliette’s feelings for him, and when he finally confronts her, you want to cry along with him. When Robert discovers he’s the last to learn of Daniel’s affair with his daughter, his frustration level hits red on the meter, and you cheer when he finally hauls off and belts him. No character ever deserved it more.
I wish better use had been made of Anne-Sofie von Otter, who appears only too briefly to sing a few bars of “Marietta’s Lied,” as Peter’s late wife and frequent collaborator. But more than that, I had hoped that the actors could have done a better job of appearing to be real musicians. While there’s been a fair amount of publicity as to how intensely the actors had been coached, the results were somewhat poor to my former violinist’s eyes. To be fair, it’s tough to fake violin and viola playing because everything is so visible. Nevertheless, the violinists are both too stiff (the director wisely hides Catherine Keener behind a music stand most of the time). Although cello is easier to fake due to the size and position of the instrument, I think Emily Watson in “Hilary and Jackie” did a better job than Christopher Walken does here.
Too nit-picky? I don’t think so, because a bad fake job in a film about musicians is so distracting that it undermines what you’re watching. In contrast, you can see a real musician-actor at work in “Topsy-Turvy,” Mike Leigh’s 1999 tribute to the creation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado.” There’s a scene in which Allan Corduner, as Sullivan, accompanies three “Mikado” actors in a patter trio, and you have the privilege of experiencing the real deal, an actor performing as a musician (Corduner studied to be a concert pianist before he became an actor). His crisp nod as he accents the music, his turning the page of the score while still playing with one hand—this is how it really happens, and it’s a total joy to watch.
Too bad “A Late Quartet” never reaches that level.