Only a few years after completing his Ninth Symphony, while very sick and profoundly deaf, Beethoven created his late string quartets, works of such inner struggle and profound spiritual yearning that many consider them his supreme achievement.
“A Late Quartet” stars Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener and Mark Ivanir as a celebrated New York City chamber-music ensemble about to tackle Opus 131. It’s a marathon composition played without pauses between movements. Over the course of the demanding piece, the players weaken and instruments lose pitch. Physical exhaustion becomes part of the music as Beethoven challenges the performers to struggle against their limitations.
In “A Late Quartet,” writer-director Yaron Zilberman finds telling parallels between the piece and the fraying relationships among the creative partners of the Fugue String Quartet. (The Brentano String Quart provides the movie’s actual music.)
Walken, the group’s esteemed cellist and founder, mourns his wife’s death and struggles with the debilitating effect of Parkinson’s disease. Hoffman and Keener, the long-married second violin and viola, face his thwarted desire to move up to first chair and her disillusion with their sputtering relationship. First violinist Ivanir, an exacting egoist, tutors their lovely, talented daughter, Imogen Poots, a relationship fraught with perilous emotional undercurrents. The Fugue is wonderfully harmonious onstage, but their real lives are struggle and discord.
While the story of artistic and romantic rivalries hits familiar notes, you could hardly hope for a more accomplished group to perform it. Zilberman renders the story’s upscale, intellectual setting with a pictorial precision that counterpoints the raw immediacy of the performances.
Keener and Hoffman, co-stars in “Capote” and “Synecdoche, New York,” are flawless together, giving us an emotional CAT scan of a troubled couple. It’s not just their verbal skirmishes that are wounding. Their very sighs and silences inflict – and reflect – serious pain. The usually outré Walken works in a subtle mode here. He’s affecting as a man beginning his own dance of death while hoping to preserve his legacy. Ivanir, a background figure in countless TV shows and films, steps into his key role with confidence. He refuses to soften his uncompromising character’s sharp edges, giving us a man who commands respect but mistrusts love.
“A Late Quartet” is the essence of a prestige film, an auspicious feature debut for a director whose sensitivity to emotional harmonies is as rewarding as his reverence for timeless, transcendent music.