Christopher Walken’s gentle, dare we say even normal, portrayal of an acclaimed concert cellist is the main attraction in Yaron Zilberman’s confident filmmaking debut, A Late Quartet. Walken elegantly plays Peter Mitchell, who a quarter century earlier joined three of his students to form the Fugue Quartet, a revered chamber music ensemble.
On the cusp of their 25th anniversary tour, Peter learns he is in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease, putting the quartet’s future in doubt. If he’s still sound enough, their next performance with be Peter’s last.
The chosen piece of music is Beethoven’s 14th String Quartet, Opus 131, one of the maestro’s final works and reportedly one of his favorites. This melancholy opus is composed to be played faster than Peter’s hands can now handle, and intended to be performed without breaks for re-tuning, while strings are stretched off-key.
"It’s a struggle to continually adjust to each other until the end, even if we are out of tune," Peter explains to a class, unwittingly describing the dilemma the Fugue Quartet suddenly faces.
Jealousy, lust and marital strife may implode the group before Peter’s body wears out.
Second violinist Robert Gelbart (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is unhappily married to violist Juliette (Catherine Keener), staying together only for the music and daughter Alex (Imogen Poots), a promising musician herself. Robert covets the first violin chair held by Daniel Lerner (Mark Ivanir), an arrogant sort without ambition to take risks. Except when it comes to Alex, whose interest in Daniel is a swipe at her parents.
Such urbane Upper East Side roundelays are reminiscent of Woody Allen’s early Manhattan phase, and Zilberman and co-writer Seth Grossman frequently deserve that comparison. A Late Quartet isn’t as stuffy as the subject suggests, prying into these privileged lives with allegro wit and recriminations. The Fugue Quartet and its temperamental indiscretions make it the Fleetwood Mac of chamber music.
Zilberman plays conductor to an indie cinema dream team of actors. That Hoffman and Keener are spot-on in each scene is no surprise; Ivanir’s magnetic brood and the range Poots displays certainly are.
Best of all there’s Walken, masterfully subdued by Peter’s sophistication and illness, yet still eccentric enough to deflect pity. His halting cadence is intact but sadder than usual, as in a monologue recalling a bittersweet meeting with cello legend Pablo Casals. How many surprises and peaks can Walken possibly have left, after so many movies and memorable roles? Well, there’s this one.