Yaron Zilberman’s feature debut A Late Quartet (2012), starring Catherine Keener, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Christopher Walken, follows the fortunes of an acclaimed New York string quartet who find its future threatened by petty rivalries and inner discord. When Peter (Walken) the cellist and founder of ‘The Fugue Quartet’, discovers that he has Parkinson’s disease it looks as though the group he has played with for over twenty years may have to disband. Peter is desperate to play one last concert with his friends and, in particular, to master Beethoven’s notoriously difficult arrangement String Quartet No. 14.
The ailing Peter is also determined to find a replacement cellist so that the quartet can continue without him. Second violinist Robert (Seymour Hoffman) and violist Juliette (Keener) happily combine career and marriage. Music runs in the family and their talented daughter, Alexandra (British actress Imogen Poots, last seen in biopic The Look of Love), takes private lessons with the fourth member of the group, Daniel (Mark Ivanir). A brooding, lonely perfectionist, Daniel lives only for music and makes his own bows from specially selected horse hair. Peter’s illness not only heralds a moment of profound change for the quartet but, also lays bare their individual vulnerabilities, unleashing various pent-up tensions.
Peter is still mourning the recent death of his wife and the realisation that his musical career is about to be abruptly curtailed magnifies his loss. Juliette views Peter as a surrogate father and is upset and preoccupied by his decline. Meanwhile, Robert suddenly declares that he is tired of playing second violin to Daniel who he accuses of dominating the group and being too exacting in his style. Frustrated by his wife’s lack of support and in a moment of self-professed madness, Robert betrays Juliette with his much younger running partner. When Juliette discovers his infidelity she demands a separation. Meanwhile, unbeknown to both of them, their daughter is undergoing a romantic rite of passage with Daniel.
As the narrative proceeds, the various trivialities of their lives become hopelessly intertwined with higher concerns. A Late Quartet, co-scripted by Zilberman and Seth Grossman, explores the extraordinary power of music to console and heal. The narrative is punctuated with sudden shifts in emotional register that mirror the characters’ uncertainties and frustrations. As things begin to unravel, the musicians have to decide whether keeping The Fugue Quartet alive is more important than their unresolved issues or if it is time to move on. Beautifully understated performances from a stellar cast and a wintry New York setting all add to the film’s quiet magic.
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