Classical music has always been an opulent breeding ground for cinematic stimulation; from Miloš Forman’s Amadeus (1984) to Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (2001), the emotionally expressive prowess of the medium has been a rich source of inspiration for decades. Attempting to capture the essence of the pursuit is Yaron Zilberman’s A Late Quartet (2012), the tale of an illustrious string ensemble pushed to breaking point by a myriad of passionate, domestic quarrels. Zilberman brings together a stellar cast to form the film’s Fugue String Quartet, including Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener and Christopher Walken.
Walken plays Peter Mitchell, the most senior member of the aforementioned collective, who’s recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Consequently, the news of Peter’s degenerative condition is the catalyst for the group’s own deterioration. Peter’s daughter Juliette (Keener) is understandably the most devastated and refuses to replace him with a younger cellist. However, her former lover and 1st violinist Daniel (Mark Ivanir) and her husband Robert (Hoffman) – who literally plays second fiddle to Daniel – are both far more concerned with the long term future of the group than the immediate welfare of one of their own.
This disagreement begins to expose the cracks in this seemingly watertight collaboration, with the introduction of Juliette and Robert’s daughter Alexandra (Imogen Poots) into Daniel’s life only exacerbating this fragile dynamic. French poet Victor Hugo once said that “music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent”, a rather fitting analogy for A Late Quartet – a film fraught with passion and jealousy that unfortunately fails to capture the subtlety of its subject matter. Initially, Zilberman makes the right move by situating his overwrought tale of lies and deceit in a snow-covered New York, giving a cold, frosty veneer to this story of fractured companionship.
However, what could have been a tense drama of escalating tension played out in adagio often finds itself registering in a falsetto more akin to the mawkish bravura of a soap opera than the delicate and pensive drama it pertains to be. Beethoven’s Opus 131 is the film’s thematic foundation; yet, whilst a smart bonding agent between the mediums of music and film, Zilberman still fails to make the most of it. Peter, whilst teaching a class, explains that the opus is “played for so long without pause, that the instruments become out of tune. What are we supposed to do? Stop or struggle to adjust.” Whilst this theory is implemented to a point, A Late Quartet has far too many subplots vying for audience attention – a mess of clashing philosophies.
Despite a rich and evocative subject, an inventive and intelligent narrative framework and a menagerie of established acting luminaries positioned where they need to be, Zilberman’s A Late Quartet ends up being little more than a muddled cacophony of clichéd dramatic twists and transparent developments, somehow belying its eloquent and graceful leitmotif. By no means a travesty, this functional tale remains a failed experiment in imbuing two of humanity’s most emotive art forms.