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Twenty-five years ago, four musicians started a Fugue String Quartet and on the eve of their next season, receive some devastating news. Peter Mitchell (Christopher Walken) announces he has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s and while in the early stages, and with some medicine, he may be able to perform, he wants their first concert to be his farewell. This is tragic news for Daniel (Mark Ivanir), Robert (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), and Juliette (Catherine Keener), the other members of the group, but serves as a catalyst for a number of suppressed issues to boil to the surface. Peter suggests they begin searching for a replacement and recommends cellist Nina Lee, though Juliette is hesitant, wanting to see if the medicine will work. Robert, the quartet’s second violin, believes it’s time he has a share of the solos afforded to the first violin, which both Juliette and Daniel say is a mistake and ill-timed for such a request. Robert is motivated to make this stand based on his attraction to a young dancer he has seen in the park on his daily runs, who’s young vibrant attitude spurs him to be bold, and coquettish. The problem is that he is already married, to Juliette. And they have a lovely but bitter daughter who is also a musical prodigy. She is getting private lessons from Daniel, and it’s not long before the two have bonded, emotionally and sexually, despite the more than twenty five years age gap.
The members have chosen to perform Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Opus 131, one of his last works. It is a massive piece of music that is seven movements long and is played attaca, meaning that all movements are played in continuation. There are no breaks or intermission for players to retune or for audiences to truly absorb. It is a metaphor on life, and a challenge for any group that plays it as each must be wholly aware of the others, finding ways to deal with the inevitable failures their instruments will incur during the lengthy performance, however minor. As the film progresses, so also is the relationship of the quartet and we see that the music they practice reflects the measure of their own lives.
Co-written, produced and directed by Yaron Zilberman, A Late Quartet is an impressively made work that gives an inside look at a lifestyle few ever see and most never consider. The string quartet is a living organism, a symbiotic body that lives only by the energy and abilities of those within the group. A single misplaced note and the harmony fails. All things are in service of the Fugue and even as their personal lives falter, they are always in consideration of the music, a singular masterwork over 25 years. Performances all around are exceptional with Walken, playing the elder of the group, a standout, seeing the closing notes of his own life approaching, reflecting on the loss of his wife and the knowledge that this will be his final show. While we never really get a sense of the history of these four remarkable musicians, aside from some clips of a documentary seen at very specific and purposeful moments, the film manages to still feel weighty and there is an investment in the characters that has its rewards. A touching, beautiful film that may play its audience for empathy but finds all the right notes along the way.
Scene Setup: The quartet has met with much and with each passing day grow more distant yet ever bound to their work. Peter is most affected. A generation older than the others, he knew going it that he would be the first to leave, but still, the decision is not easy, and when internal bitterness divides the group he is hurt and betrayed, especially considering his position. He sits in the shadows of his big empty home and listens to recordings of his wife, a concert vocalist who passed away the year before. He his reminded of his mortality and and the legacy he will leave behind, but worse the deterioration of his own mind and body that will soon ruin him. He is on medication and his hands feel good, so he tells the group that he is ready for his final performance. There is a particularly difficult movement in the work that he has reservations about, but his rehearsals have been strong and he keeps his concerns to himself. The night of the performance, all members gather, the burden of their lives affecting each.
The Scene: (Timestamp 01:32:09) Opus 131 begins with a single soft note from the first violin and slowly introduces the second and then the viola and finally the cello. The members eye each other as they play, and we are attuned to the motivations and the pain each now carries. The music is tragic and bittersweet and we can feel the players expressing themselves through their instruments, perhaps as only they know how, with each recognizing what the other is emoting. Peter is the anchor, and Walken is mesmerizing.
The players continue on through the movements as the tempo increases, a liveliness sets in and there is joy in their faces for this is what the quartet is about, the bond the four have forged over a quarter of a century. There is perfect symmetry and no matter what history lies between them, it fades in the far background on stage. Throughout, we are shown Peter’s face, slowly growing ashen. There is a fierceness in his eyes as he battles on but by the start of the seventh movement there is no hope. He lets his hands fall away and lays his cello at his feet. His time on stage is over. The group stops with recognition. He stands and addresses the audience in the film’s most powerful moment, and with it comes the realization that all things between these friends and family are meant to move on. It is the Fugue that must continue. What follows is a brilliant, emotional sequence that without words, tells us everything we need to know.
While all the characters are equally strong, it is Mitchell who is the real draw here. Seymour Hoffman and Keener, who were together in Synecdoche, are very good as a long-married couple with deep-seeded issues, especially concerning their daughter. But through it all, it is always Walken who binds not only the fictional family but the real actors as well. His gentle, passionate performance is often jarringly real, with most of his best moments coming when he teaches his students, regaling them with anecdotes of times pasts, to scenes of him alone in total silence. Faced with such a strange dichotomy of knowns (his career is over) and unknowns (what will this disease to do to him) he carries much of the film’s heavier burdens and when one moment has him atop a building looking down to the street below, we know very well what is circling in his mind.
In this scene, we see just how powerful his role in the quartet is. When he lays his cello down, there are no doubts that the decision is unquestionable. There are no pleas or calls for encouragement from the others. That would be futile. Instead, there is almost unbearable heartbreak in their eyes, for they can see much in the surrender of their elder. When he smiles at them, it is not in defeat, but with immeasurable love for the life and passion he shared with them all. He is a man of immense dignity, and he reserves his single moment of vulnerability to be in words to his wife’s spirit, whom he knows is somewhere there with them.
A rich and rewarding experience, A Last Quartet doesn’t require the viewer to be knowledgable or even a fan of classical music. What it does is showcase actors in roles that are rare to see in film and have them push themselves to places we don’t expect. That in itself is music to any movie fan’s soul.
Director: Yaron Zilberman
Writers: Seth Grossman (screenplay), Yaron Zilberman(screenplay)
Stars: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christopher Walken,Catherine Keener, Mark Ivanir