Movie Review: A Late Quartet–Harmony within the Dissonance

I received an e-mail last Monday that read like this:
Ciao Gianni,
Ho visto un film ieri sera si chiamo “A Last Quartet”. Ho pensato molto a Biggs perche un uomo ha Parkinson’s. Interesante  Buon giorno!!

“Biggs” was a friend of ours who struggled with Parkinson’s until the end of her life and Parkinsons plays a major role in the plot of Yaron Zilberman’s film A Late Quartet.  I had read about the film in those end-of-summer write-ups of films that would be arriving in the coming months, but had forgotten completely about it. And now, here it was in town.

And while a diagnosis of Parkinson’s comes early in the movie, it is not the only malfunction in the story.  The film is about the tensions, dysfunctions, rivalries, and bickerings that take place within a famous string quartet, “The Fugue String Quartet.”  Celebrating its 25th anniversary together, the quartet reveals a shattering disharmony in an ensemble devoted to creating celestial harmony.

The film begins as the ensemble gathers for its first rehearsal after a short period apart. The cello player, Peter (Christopher Walken) cuts the practice short as he finds he is losing control and strength in his hand. After some visits to the doctor, he learns he has the onset of Parkinson’s disease, and he calls the group together to tell them and to announce that the first concert of the new season will be his final performance.
Yet Peter’s debilitating disease plays underneath the rest of the melodrama–much like his cello plays under the melodies of the quartet. Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Juliette (Catherine Keener) have been married through most of the quartet’s existence, and the strains within the marriage seem to be becoming more and more taut.  There is a silent dissatisfaction and regret running through the both of them. And finally, the first violinist Daniel (Mark Ivanir) is an exacting, domineering, egoist whose suppressed passion erupts in an affair that may fracture the quartet. (No, gentle readers. Although Juliette and he were once lovers before she married, she is not the focus of his attentions.)

A Late Quartet would be considered no more than just a middling film if it weren’t for the performances of Hoffman, Keener, Ivanir and Walken.  Walken, who lately seemed to be a mere parody of himself (more cowbell, anyone?) is superb. I can’t remember ever seeing him this intense, this openly vulnerable. In the class he teaches, he reads his young prodigies T.S. Eliot on Beethoven and reminisces about his and Pablo Casal’s conversations. He is dying, he is missing his dead wife, and he is suffering as he watches his beloved quartet rip apart. It is a simple, understated performance that echoes the role that his cello brings to the music.

On the other hand, while his character plays second violin in the quartet, Philip Seymour Hoffman is certainly the first violin in this ensemble. It is his quiet emotional rollercoaster, his final refusal to be everyone’s “doormat,” his true declaration of love for the wife whom he has just betrayed that is the masterstroke in this film. The film builds on Hoffman.  He and Cathrine Keener have worked in several films together (most notably Capote and Synecdoche, New York) and their comfort with each other is evident. The character she plays is perhaps the least discoverable–she is strong and yet damaged, wise and yet blindered, loving and yet cold.  Mark Ivanir (who people will recognize from countless television series as well as three Spielberg films and a couple of DeNiro projects) plays the role of the obsessive Daniel. Focused on passionless precision, he is the counterweight to Hoffman–who inwardly covets Daniel’s role as first violinist.

As well as the ensemble works off each other, the music is perhaps the most memorable.  The quartet is preparing Beethoven’s Opus 131 String Quartet (in C-sharp minor), a piece that Beethoven wrote during his last days and which taxes the strength and stamina of the performers as well as the integrity of the instruments.  We learn that it is what Schubert asked to be played to him as he was dying. In the film, the music is actually played by the Brentano Quartet, and it is stirringly emotional.  If you wish, you can hear it here:

Schubert once said after having heard Opus 131, “After this, what is left for us to write?”  The film A Late Quartet falls far short of those heights, yet when I think of Parkinson’s Disease and the people who I knew who have suffered from it, I wonder if the “what is left…?” is the haunting motif. I wonder if the Christoper Walken character–who so much wants the quartet to continue after him–has considered the same.