Despite the close-quarter work that comes with playing in an established string quartet of 25 years, one wouldn't think tempers would often boil into fisticuffs.
Professional musicians tend to be extremely cautious of their hands.
But at a key emotional moment in the movie A Late Quartet, when the second violinist has had all he can take of the first violinist, the fists do fly. But not before the second violinist carefully packs his own instrument in its case, away from possible harm.
Trust Philip Seymour Hoffman to know that is precisely the kind of thing a classical fiddler would do. And the act is in keeping with the central dynamic of the story, in which a celebrated string quartet faces the possibility of dissolution. Each member of the quartet will cause some anguish to the others. But the attitude towards the music itself will stay reverent, with performance treated as something akin to holy rite.
Directed by Yaron Zilberman (Water Marks) and scripted by Zilberman and Seth Grossman, A Late Quartet is high-minded melodrama about musicians who take solace in the perfection of music when their personal lives are so much less than sublime.
The Fugue Quartet is a musical institution in New York City, but cellist and de facto group patriarch Peter (Christopher Walken) fears it may come to an end after 25 years. Newly widowed, Peter is diagnosed with the early stages of Parkinson's. When he announces his condition to his partners, other stress fractures appear in the quartet's distinguished facade. Second violinist Robert (Hoffman), in the depths of a kind of middle-aged panic, wants to trade places with exacting perfectionist first violin Daniel (Mark Ivanir). Possibly, Robert is smarting from a long ago love affair between Daniel and his wife/viola player Juliette (Catherine Keener).
Adding even more to the tension, Daniel has chosen this time to have an affair with violin student Alexandra (Imogen Poots). Yep, she is Robert and Juliette's daughter.
If it sounds tawdry, the movie is classed up by the wintry New York City setting, a transcendent soundtrack and some excellent performances. It is especially gratifying to see Walken in subdued melancholy mode. Often obliged to do a kind of self-parody, he here offers a reminder of what graceful, subtle work he can do.
It is one of the movie's witty conceits that each of the four main characters in the film have personalities that suit their positions in the quartet, and Walken in particular delivers a deep, dark resonance akin to his cello.
Selected excerpts of reviews of A Late Quartet:
"For a film that relies so heavily on the lasting power of a classical master, A Late Quartet never really converts any viewers to his church."
-- Connie Ogle, Miami Herald
"The outstanding ensemble cast keeps the story -- and its accompanying emotional heft -- from becoming overly baroque."
-- Claudia Puig, USA Today
"I was happy watching these actors, happy going behind the scenes of a sober classical music ensemble instead of another druggy rock group, happy hearing Beethoven for a couple of hours. The movie is haut-bourgeois to the bone, but so am I"
-- David Edelstein, New York Magazine
A Late Quartet
Starring Christopher Walken and Philip Seymour Hoffman
3 1/2 out of five stars