“A Late Quartet” explores the raw underbelly of professional relationships in the elite world of classical music. Complemented by an accomplished cast, a frostbitten Manhattan and the evocative music of Beethoven’s Opus 131 in C-sharp minor, “Quartet” stands out from its cinematic contemporaries.
The film follows the members of a string quartet as they come to terms with the inevitability of change. After playing together for 25 years, the cellist Peter (Christopher Walken) develops Parkinson’s disease, a career-ending diagnosis. The three remaining musicians must struggle with the ramifications of Peter’s certain exit from the quartet, spurring emotional turmoil between them and threatening the very existence of the group.
Walken’s Peter serves as the group’s father figure, especially to the quartet’s viola player, Juliette (Catherine Keener), whom Peter took in as an orphaned teen. The role of ailing cellist Peter is oddly subdued compared to Walken’s other work, but as usual, he performs admirably in the role. Walken portrays a musician who demonstrates incredible strength as he copes with the end of his career, the tensions among the remaining quartet members and the search for his replacement.
The rest of the cast shines as well. Philip Seymour Hoffman, as overshadowed second-chair violinist Robert, embodies the character with such a vulnerable poignancy that the audience can sympathize with even his darkest deeds. The subject of Hoffman’s envy, first-chair violinist, Daniel (Mark Ivanir), is perhaps the most tragic of all the floundering characters. While presenting a facade of self-assurance, Daniel frequently loses his way. Keener’s performance as Juliet displays great discipline, as the character’s marriage, career and relationship with her daughter (Imogen Poots) are thrown into limbo.
According to director Yaron Zilberman, the film was shot within a brief 27-day period during one of the coldest New York winters in recent history. Perhaps due to this unique opportunity, the cultural backdrop of the city steals many scenes. Paired with a heart-wrenchingly beautiful slate of classical music, “Quartet” portrays Manhattan perfectly with the vision of a city whitewashed by snow.
The media rarely delves into the secret lives of the classical music scene, making “Quartet” a true trailblazer. The overlap of professional and personal relationships creates the perfect amount of intrigue–a hodgepodge of connections among family, friends, colleagues and lovers.
One need not be schooled by Julliard to enjoy the film. Aided by the immensely talented actors, gorgeous music, pristinely snow-covered Manhattan and captivating plot, “Quartet” spins a deliciously convoluted — sometimes tragic — web.
Isabel Jones is a staff writer. Email her at [email protected]