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For Your Consideration: 'A Late Quartet'

String quartets -- not the musical pieces, but the people who play them -- can be notoriously fractious. String quartet players have related their disagreements in memoirs or in spoken comments: traveling, rehearsing, and working so many hours out of the year with the same three musicians has its challenges. Even composers have played on the conflicts among members of string quartets, as in the second quartet by Charles Ives. So the string quartet in A Late Quartet, the recent film by Yaron Zilberman that opened last November, seems at first uncharacteristically cohesive and warmly cooperative. However, it does not take much for the rifts just under the surface among the members of the fictitious Fugue Quartet to open and crack apart.

The group is about to start its 25th season together, but cellist Peter Mitchell has a shaky left hand as they rehearse the fugal opening of Beethoven's op. 131. By far the most entertaining part of the film is watching Christopher Walken's portrayal of the Peter, the most senior member of the quartet, whose possible departure may rip the group apart. He is shown teaching a class on Beethoven's late string quartets, in which he quotes the opening of T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets, inspired by Beethoven's late string quartets, especially op. 131. The brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman plays second violinist Robert Gelbart, whose rivalry with the obsessive, perfectionist first violinist Daniel Lerner (an imperious Mark Ivanir, last seen in 360) soon spins out of control. The conflict threatens Robert's marriage to the violist Juliette Gelbart (the lovely, soft-edged Catherine Keener) when Robert becomes infatuated with a flamenco dancer (the ravishing Liraz Charhi), although their relationship was already under strain. Their daughter (a sexy, pouty Imogen Poots), although she resents having grown up with both parents on tour half the year, has just finished her studies as a violinist at Curtis and is looking to start her own career as a chamber musician.

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All of this is told quite convincingly and with stately pacing by Zilberman, a director with only one documentary (Watermarks, 2005) to his credit before this (the story is Zilberman's, although the screenplay was co-written with Seth Grossman). Guest appearances by Wallace Shawn ("Incontheivable!") and mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter (as the cellist's late wife) liven things up, too, but the promise of the film fades as the story becomes more and more melodramatic, taking it gradually out of the realm of the believable into the bathetic. The film opens with the quartet taking the stage, sitting down, honing in on closeups of the actors in that moment just before the music begins (but does not show them playing) -- and the intensity of the musicians' interaction is what guides them. In a sense they have kept these conflicts submerged because they love to play together and they have had great success doing it. Classical music aficionados will likely enjoy the inner drama of music making -- the actual performances are by the Brentano String Quartet, with their cellist, Nina Lee, playing the cellist who takes Walken's place in the quartet -- while viewers who may not know classical music may find a way into the delights of chamber music.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A soap opera wrapped in a Beethoven quartet is still a soap opera.