“Pause…take a breath.”
At first you might expect A Late Quartet to be about the music. There is certainly plenty of it to go around. The film even manages to convince us that Christopher Walken is a renowned cello player even though we all know what he can do with a pocket watch. Yeah, you caught yourself smiling there, even if you’d like to believe you’re above such things. It demonstrates the real strength of the film. It’s not the music. It’s a rather surprising and convincing collection of performances, this is true. But it’s the thespian art that is truly on display in this rather intimate drama.
The Fugue Quartet has been together for 25 years. They are accomplished enough to have been featured on the cover of international magazines and to have toured throughout the world each season. They are also a rather tight-knit group. The members have not changed in that 25 years, and they have become an integral part of each other’s lives. The leader of the group appears to be first violin Daniel (Ivanir). He’s quite the talented player and his greatest problem is that he knows it. Second violin is Robert (Hoffman). He’s the quiet member of the group who has pretty much been dominated by Daniel for the entire 25 years. He’s married to the viola player Juliette (Keener) who once had a fling with Daniel. Together Robert and Juliette have a daughter Alexandra (Poots) who is studying violin under Daniel and has developed a crush on the noted womanizer. The spiritual leader of the quartet has been cellist Peter (Walken), who has had a pretty rough year. His wife died, and now he’s discovered he’s suffering from Parkinson’s disease. It’s in its early stages but he’s already finding it affects his playing. He announces that he’d like their opening concert of the season to be his farewell. He’s lined up a good replacement and appears ready to pack it in.
This is where things begin. With Peter leaving, the turmoil and hidden feelings of the other three begin to manifest themselves, and it all begins to unravel. Robert decides he’s no longer willing to take second place. He wants to rotate the first and second violin parts. His sudden assertiveness causes friction in his marriage, and it doesn’t help that Daniel is taking full advantage of Alexandria’s crush. It’s a rather clever design. While Walken’s character is the one dealing with loss and his own new-found frailty, he’s almost blissfully unaware of the shockwaves his impending departure has caused. There’s a scene toward the end where they gather to rehearse and he’s confronted for the first time with the turmoil. It’s a wonderful performance by Walken as he awakens to the disharmony. It shakes him far worse than his own mortality does. In the end he’s come to grips with his problem far better than those around him have.
It’s this complicated web of internal interrelationships that truly drives the script. For that you absolutely need a brilliant cast, and you get it here. The performances carry all of the action and energy to be found here. There aren’t any crazy gimmicks or grand visuals to hide behind. The focus is always on the performances, and credit director Yaron Zilberman for understanding that simple fact. He stays out of their way. He also does a good job of hiding the actors’ inability to really be these great musicians with clever camera angles and obstructions. It’s never obvious that much of the instrument fingering isn’t clear. When it’s impossible to hide, credit each actor’s legion of musician coaches for giving them the ability to fake it quite convincingly. As a musician myself, nothing takes me out of a piece than when an actor is doing a terrible job of pretending to play. There’s an awful tendency to move in opposite directions from the proper tone placements. You won’t find that here. The performances are never a distraction. It’s not perfect, but it is very well done indeed. Walken could not have found a more against-type role. Hell, Walken even got me to forget about the whole pocket watch thing.
If you are interested in the music, there is plenty here to enjoy. Much of the mystery of the film involves the quartet’s specialty. They play Beethoven’s String Quartet Opus 131. It’s a difficult piece because it requires the musicians to play the entire 7 movements without a rest. You can understand why this might be a particular challenge for Peter. To make it even more complicated, Robert’s been dying to do the piece without music or notes, a suggestion that has always been shot down by Daniel in the past. Plenty of music, but this isn’t really about the music, “It’s about the quartet”.