Susan Granger’s review of “A Late Quartet” (Entertainment One/RKO Pictures)
You don’t have to know much about chamber music to be enthralled by the four characters that comprise Manhattan’s Fugue String Quarter.
When the oldest and most revered member, Peter Mitchell (Christopher Walken), is diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, he wisely decides that this will be his last season as their cellist. Since they’ve performed together for 25 years, the announcement of his retirement comes as a shock to Daniel Lerner (Mark Ivanir), who plays first violin; Robert Gelbart (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the second violinist; and Robert’s wife, Juliette Gelbart (Catherine Keener), their emotionally vibrant violist.
Realizing that the dynamics of the ensemble will, inevitably, change with the arrival of a suitable replacement, Robert declares that he’s tired of playing ‘second seat’ and would like to alternate, occasionally, in the more visible ‘first chair.’ His obvious resentment stuns Juliette, who feels the self-serving move is opportunistic, and infuriates arrogant, controlling Daniel. Feeling hurt and rejected, Robert has a desperate one-night stand with a Spanish flamenco dancer (Liraz Charhi) and, when Juliette discovers his betrayal, she leaves him. Complicating matters further is a budding May-December romance between Juliette and Robert’s talented 22 year-old daughter, Alexandra (Imogen Poots), and Daniel, who has become her technically demanding mentor.
Skillfully directed by documentarian Yaron Zilberman (“Watermarks”) from his screenplay collaboration with Seth Grossman, it offers a melancholy, melodramatic peek into the backstage life of classical musicians, as the tensions of their professional and personal lives intertwine with muted, meticulous precision. All four actors took enough lessons to appear authentic playing short, yet demanding phrases. Particularly convincing is Christopher Walken, who delivers a quiet, dignified, understated performance that’s quite different from the bizarre cinematic characters he often creates.
The soundtrack artfully combines Beethoven’s demanding Opus 131, along with pieces by Haydn, Bach and Strauss, amplified by Angelo Badalamenti’s complementary score, performed by the Brentano String Quartet.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “A Late Quartet” is an engaging 8 – with the mature actors never striking a dissonant note.