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After a quarter century together as one of the world's top chamber music ensembles, the Fugue String Quartet is falling apart at the seams. A generation older than his colleagues, cellist Peter (Christopher Walken) is experiencing the early symptoms of Parkinson's, and with his sudden retirement, a morass of long-buried resentments and pain come spewing out of his three younger partners: first violinist Daniel (Mark Ivanir), second violinist Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and violist Juliette (Catherine Keener).
That's one of the neat conceits of A Late Quartet, a film by Yaron Zilberman, who also co-wrote the script; the other is the Fugue's freighted choice of repertoire for Peter's farewell concert: Beethoven's massive and mystical String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 131, one of the composer's last works.
Near the film's beginning, Peter asks his chamber music class about the meaning behind Beethoven's directive to play all seven movements of Op. 131 attaca — that is, without any pause at all, without stopping for adjustments like tuning or even a blinking moment for the players and audience to reflect and reset. It's a metaphor about life and time rushing on for everyone, but here it presents an even more direct analogy: how the Fugue String Quartet might survive this upheaval after 25 years together without any changes in personnel. "What are we to do?" Peter asks his class, taking more than one too many rhetorical pauses of his own. "Stop? Or are we to struggle, to continually adjust to each other to the end, if we are out of tune?"
Zilberman goes on to try to chronicle each of these struggles, great and small: Peter's diagnosis, his mourning of his recently deceased wife, Miriam (played in cameo by famed mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, whom we also hear singing Marietta's Song from Korngold's Die Tote Stadt), Robert's unfulfilled professional ambitions, the complete unraveling of Robert and Juliette's marriage, implied complexities between Juliette and Daniel that result in even more unspoken rivalry between Daniel and Robert, Daniel's hairpin-turn relationship with Robert and Juliette's perpetually enraged daughter, Alexandra (Imogen Poots). The veins of jealousy, betrayal and insecurity running just below the ice of the quartet's wintry Upper West Side are nearly too many to count.
There are some inspired casting choices. Robert, the quartet's perennially put-upon, self-hating and frustrated second violinist yearning to step up to the first chair, is played to utter perfection by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Catherine Keener as Juliette is remote with everyone save her mentor, the benevolent elder cellist Peter, whom we learn has been a father figure to her both professionally and personally for many years. Ukranian-Israeli actor Mark Ivanir is a bristling ball of rage contained only by his own ultra-perfectionism. Walken is, perhaps surprisingly, the calming presence here, rousing himself occasionally from his own stupor of sadness to manage his younger colleagues through the shock of his own diagnosis. But some talent is thrown away: I wish that there had been a more fitting role written for Wallace Shawn, who here has a bit turn as pianist Gideon Rosen but who would have been fantastic as a conniving artist manager or record executive.
Fellow string players will notice some tiny wrong notes. The married members of the quartet seem to wear their wedding rings on their left hands (pretty unusual among professional classical string players), and all of the actors have an irritating habit of waving their unused left fingers in the air like lobster claws as they reach emotively for high notes. However, Zilberman drew upon several young heavyweight talents as coaches, including cellist Nicholas Cannelakis and Brooklyn Rider's Johnny Gandelsman and Nicholas Cords, who recorded their own, completely inspired version of Beethoven's mystical string quartet earlier this year. (Is there something in the water right now when it comes to Op. 131? I feel as if I've encountered it at every turn this year, from Brooklyn Rider's magical recording to a totally different and equally sublime performance by the Ebène Quartet back in March at Carnegie Hall.) Zilberman got the Brentano String Quartet — whose real-life cellist, Nina Lee, plays herself as Peter's replacement — to contribute solid readings of this piece as the Fugue's stand-ins.
For all of A Late Quartet's miniaturist melodrama, I missed the total adrenaline rush of an exceptional string quartet — the crazy cosmology of four strong spirits circling and bouncing off each other in perpetually shifting orbits. And we really don't ever see this group happy; we meet them at the brink of crisis, just as Peter is given his diagnosis of Parkinson's disease. We sense their accomplishments through Carnegie Hall posters in the background and their perpetually overbooked calendars. We don't witness them performing at their collective peak. Perhaps that very particular beauty and energy is simply too ineffable, mysterious and fleeting to duplicate with even the finest actors, but that's the movie I'm still hoping to see.