A Late Quartet (2012; dir. Yaron Zilberman) is a small, seemingly unambitious film that gradually swells. The cast is outstanding, with Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, and Mark Ivanir as members of a world-famous string quartet that has played together for 25 years. Walken has too frequently in his career played eccentric, loopy characters that many take to be an extension of himself. In A Late Quartet he gives a remarkable performance—nuanced, resonant, and convincing as the senior member of the quartet whose discovery that he has Parkinson’s disease sets the plot in motion. The other principal actors are nearly as good.
The film shows us the melodramatic conflicts, rivalries, disappointments, and ambitions of the quartet’s members. The first violin (Ivanir) is a perfectionist who refuses to play from memory and has coldly devoted his entire life to the violin. The second violin (Hoffman) secretly longs to be first violin and suspects that his wife, the violist (Keener) doesn’t love him. The violist many years before had an affair with the first violinist, before she met her husband, before pregnancy pushed her into marriage. She never has been entirely happy with herself. And the cellist (Walken) lost his wife a year earlier and is still recovering. The relationships grow increasingly complicated and tangled.
The film demonstrates how the lives and identities of the quartet members are intimately tied to the quartet itself. The violist in particular fears change of any kind, while her husband longs for it, or thinks he does. The first violin refuses to share his position as first chair with Hoffman, yet he cannot imagine playing with any other person in the second chair position.
I have no idea what the personal and professional dynamics of string quartet members are, but A Late Quartet does a convincing job of suggesting that it knows. At stake here is the vocation of art, music, age and time, disappointment, love, and change. The final scene, where the group performs Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 (a motif throughout) is a wonderful and emotional resolution.