Not to be confused with Quartet (2012) with Maggie Smith, James Ivory’s Quartet (1981) with Maggie Smith or Radley Metzger’s The Lickerish Quartet (1970), definitely not with Maggie Smith, A Late Quartet is a character drama that delves into the relationships and personal dynamics of a close-knit group of musicians. It’s a real actors’ piece with classical music as its backdrop, particularly Beethoven’s String Quartet No.14, and additional original music composed by Angelo Badalamenti, who has produced a score that complements the many classical pieces that are played by the quartet to their discerning audiences.
They are The Fugue Quartet and, despite their undeniable abilities honed from a quarter of a century playing together, changes for the group seem to be inevitable. Peter Mitchell (Christopher Walken) has been informed by his consultant, Dr. Nadir (Madhur Jaffrey), that he has Parkinson’s Disease and, as the symptoms are becoming increasingly difficult to control, he is determined that his beloved quartet should find a new cellist to replace him. But, as shocking a revelation as this proves to be, it is just one of a number of concerns that affect the relationships between the four. Partly this is about the group, and partly it is about affairs (some of them very specifically affairs) outside of the quartet. Second violinist Robert Gelbart (Philip Seymour Hoffman), despite his easy going appearance, is not only unhappy in his relationship with viola playing wife Juliette Gelbart (Catherine Keener) but also feels that he is always quite literally playing second fiddle to first violinist Daniel Lerner (Mark Ivanir), a situation he wishes to change. If that were not enough for Robert and Juliette, there are additional problems in that their daughter Alexandra (Imogen Poots), a burgeoning musician herself, is on the brink of a potential relationship with her teacher… who just happens to be Daniel.
‘To the Fugue!’ the group declare in their toast to their precious quartet. In many ways A Late Quartet brings new meaning to the term ensemble piece. This is an actors’ film on a number of levels, as befits, perhaps, central characters whose occupation involves performing in front of an audience. There is a need to show not only musical abilities but to couple these with emotional interaction and dialogue that connects the close-up intensity of cinematic presentation and the drama of a stage play. Peter’s retirement is the catalyst for the opening of the Pandora’s Box of tensions and anxieties that have been building up between the characters for the last 25 years. It feels as though he was actually the glue that held the group together. As the conflicts develop the issues range from the relatively minor (Robert’s desire to alternate chairs and other general bickering) to the realities of Peter’s last concert appearance and the group realising that they have to come to terms with ‘replacing Peter with a another cellist’. Christopher Walken’s balancing of his character’s emotional desires and deteriorating health are wonderfully played in an exemplary performance that is both central to the plot premise and helps develop the quandaries that all the characters face.
Writer/producer/director Yaron Zilberman has taken an ‘exciting and a worthwhile risk’ in bringing A Late Quartet to the big screen. In the end this is a nicely realised and wonderfully acted film about fugues and feuds.