A Late Quartet took me by surprise. And I almost missed it. Though on my shortlist, I had resigned to it falling victim to scheduling at TIFF12 and was certain that the trailer I had seen (which you have here) was pointing toward something not very good actually - more focused on the politics than the music. This is where trailers can be very misleading. The moments pulled out into this one are dramatic high points that look like emotional ones as well, but actually the emotional high points of this film are much subtler and much deeper. This film is about fidelity and loyalty (two slightly different ideas which the movie nuances beautifully) among four members of a string quartet who have played together all their lives and whose passions, needs, failings and longings have been accepted realities unlikely to change. When the cellist, played by Christopher Walken, develops Parkinson's disease and must consider retiring, the dynamics of the group break open and all that was previously taken for granted is shattered. Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener do some of their very best work as characters trying to pick up the pieces, while also living out their unresolved pasts. I was particularly moved by the marriage story of Hoffman and Keener, and how well they bring across the complexity of a union that has not been fulfilling either of them, despite deep mutual love, for quite some time.
I grew up having periodic contact with the Orford String Quartet, Canada's (and one of the world's) then finest string quartets. We had gatherings in our home when the quartet and my father played together and we feasted afterwards. This movie captures what I remember of what it means to be committed to a life in music. The level of excellence must not only be achieved, but maintained, rigorously, at all times. In this way, perhaps the most astonishing thing about A Late Quartet is the actual performing sequences. At the screening I attended, director Yaron Zilberman told us that all four quartet actors (Walken, Hoffman and Keener are joined by Mark Ivanir playing the arrogant first violinist character) spent a year preparing, under the supervision and tutelage of a separate coach for each of them. The goal was to be able to play 15 minutes of Beethoven's late quartet No. 131 in a way that looked authentic. Though the music itself was ultimately supplied by the Brentano String Quartet, the actors are incredibly convincing. In addition, Imogen Poots plays the daughter of Keener and Hoffman, herself a violin virtuoso whose sacrifices of upbringing also play into the emotional unravellings of the relationships.
In the end, it is really Hoffman's film, however, and comes in a year in which he has given several very fine performances. His disentangling of his character's passions and needs is really what holds the whole thing together, as indeed, a second violinist is the backbone of any quartet. Zilberman also told us that his screenplay (written with Seth Grossman) is itself modelled after opus 131, Beethoven's enigmatic seven-movement work that performers try to play all in one 'breath', without stopping. The film's intelligence, however, lies in how it offers us many resting points. The Beethoven music lingers over shots of an unusually quiet and wintery New York City, thus holding the mood of the anguished souls within it like the cherry orchard in Chekhov.