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A Late Quartet | reviews, news & interviews

A Late Quartet

A Late Quartet

A stellar foursome plays Beethoven in a chamber piece about actual chamber music

Untune that string: the constituent parts of the Fugue Quartet leave it late

Two’s company, three’s a crowd, four’s a string quartet. Classical music movies tend to focus on the cost of individual brilliance. See David Helfgott in Shine, Jacqueline du Pré in Hilary and Jackie, not forgetting the talented little man who features in Amadeus. A Late Quartet homes in on that subtle and complex quadratic equation, a string ensemble which thrives on the interplay of four barely subordinated egos.

The Fugue String Quartet is all set to celebrate its 25th anniversary in New York when its cellist and senior member Peter (Christopher Walken) announces that after one last performance of Beethoven’s Opus 131 he is stepping away. Diagnosed with early-stage Parkinson’s, his fingers can no longer be relied upon to obey orders. The news soon shifts the tectonic plates under the remaining trio. Second violin Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman) suddenly develops a yearning to share the first violin duties with Daniel (Mark Ivanir), a fiddle anorak and raging obsessive who unsurprisingly is loath to budge up.

Then there is the violist Juliette, who also happens to be Robert’s wife, Daniel’s former lover and Peter’s surrogate daughter. Having failed to extract a declaration of loyalty, Robert introduces further dissonance by stroppily bedding a foxy flamenco dancer of his acquaintance (Liraz Charhi). A fifth element complicates the quartet’s internal dynamics still further in the shape of Robert and Juliette’s rebellious daughter Alexandra (Imogen Poots, pictured right). A student violinist, she is advised by her father to find more colours in her playing by unleashing her passion. She takes him at his word and soon lets lessons with Daniel progress to an affair. It’s only a matter of time before the fist on the end of the second violin’s bowing arm is heading for the first violin’s stubbly jaw.

As the poet said, untune that string and hark what discord follows. Actually it’s another poet whose words underscore the internal strife of the Fugue Quartet - the unredeemable past and eternal present invoked in TS Eliot’s "Burnt Norton". It’s worth noting that this intense study of mature artistry is the directorial debut of Yaron Zilberman, who co-wrote the script with Seth Grossman. The other character is of course Beethoven’s last quartet, which spreads a hypnotic pall of searching melancholy.

Although the music is performed by the Brentano String Quartet, the quartet of actors make a presentable stab of looking like professional string players. Walken grapples with his cello in the style of Hemingway’s old man reeling in a marlin while simultaneously snacking on a wasp, but that could be deliberate. There’s no picking holes in the acting, of course, even if the tears trickle out of Poots’ conflicted neophyte a little too showily. Light relief is supplied by Wallace Shawn as the rival leader of a string trio, and Anne-Sofie Von Otter has a swift cameo as the ghost of Peter’s late wife.

“You have to be heartbroken to play Op 131,” the pedagogic Peter tells his students. He doesn’t say how. The film opens in that pregnant moment before a performance commences, then returns to it at the end to see what happens next. Even if you know how the interior dialogue of the Beethoven goes, the drama is in how it impacts on this quartet as they play it for the last time. Films are often compared to chamber pieces. In this moving instance, for once no comparison is necessary.

Watch the trailer for A Late Quartet

Walken grapples with his cello in the style of Hemingway’s old man reeling in a marlin while simultaneously snacking on a wasp


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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