“A LATE QUARTET” is a delightful ensemble piece about, duh, a quartet. It centers around the sudden discovery by one of the musicians – cellist Peter Mitchell (an unusually low-keyed Christopher Walken) – that he has Parkinson’s, and can therefore no longer play. The quartet, which has achieved global fame, and has been together, interdependent on one another for twenty years, is severely threatened.
Over this period, like any good relationship, they’ve come to depend upon each other and act – or play – in perfect harmony.
The idea of the quartet is of course the microcosm of how couples or whole communities live together – dependently interdependent.
Peter, aptly named (the rock) is very much the gravitational center of the group and the shock wave of his revelation, with its intimations of mortality, is the catalyst for things to start falling apart. Second violinist, Robert (the typically brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman, soon to be seen in more populist fare – the second edition of “The Hunger Games”) is the first to crack open the status quo with his demand to be recognized as an individual – by sharing first violinist duties with Daniel (Mark Ivanir).
His need to express and assert his individuality is seen not only in his demands as a musician, but also in his relationship with his wife, Juliet (Catherine Keener), also a member of the quartet, and whose well mannered passion-free affection leaves him longing and lusting for something more. Enter Ms Passion, Pilar (a sizzling Liraz Chari).
Passion doesn’t stop with Robert (who is immediately regretful of his temporary lapse).
Daniel is seduced by Juliet and Robert’s daughter, Alexandra (a less credible, if sexy Imogen Poots), perhaps as a, somewhat juvenile, reaction to feelings of maternal abandonment.
Juliet herself has also had some sort of relationship with first violinist Daniel sometime in the past before pregnancy enforced some sort of domestic bliss with Robert.
It’s as though the minute they stop putting in the discipline and the practice that make them the finely tuned orchestra that they are, and start improvising, chaos threatens.
Yaron Ziberman’s beautifully written film, structured more like a play than a movie, explores the tension between the needs of the individual and the demands of the group; between control – playing the notes on the page – and freedom: playing from memory and passion.
It probes the very human need for self expression – which can be either selfish and destructive or, as art, and epitomized by the music of the group, a means of spiritual upliftment and grace.
Like the piece the group is rehearsing (Beethoven’s Opus 131, which has to be played without a pause so that the players are forced to adjust to each others instruments which will slowly drift out of tune) “A Late Quartet” looks at how we adjust to others and how we balance the responsibility to ourselves with our private passions, with our responsibility as social animals to others and their needs
It’s marvelously well-written, well acted and well directed. If for nothing else, go see it for Philip Seymour Hoffman’s nuanced brilliance.