"A Late Quartet"

Despite the complexity of the characters and Beethoven’s Opus 131, “A Late Quartet”, is a simple film. You can watch, take in the music and understand the struggles of the quartet members all while looking at snapshots of a New York City winter.
Christopher Walken plays the eldest member and cellist in the quartet, Peter Mitchell. He helped raise Juliette Gelbart, the violist played by Catherine Keener. Philip Seymour Hoffman is Juliette’s husband Robert, and plays the role of second violin. The dark horse, while he has long-time ties to the rest of the quartet, is Daniel Lerner (Mark Ivanir) on first violin.
At the start of the film the quartet is embarking on its 25th season performing together, primarily in New York City. Mitchell then receives the news he is diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, which is devastating to the rest of the quartet, especially Juliette.
The diagnosis serves to push the emotions, and in some cases impulses, everyone in the quartet has over the edge.
They’re like a family, which director Yaron Zilberman says in a Los Angeles Times interview is not all that uncommon for an orchestra quartet.
Zilberman sets the film against the backdrop of the Opus 131, which is said to be one of the most challenging pieces for a quartet to play.
As Mitchell describes to a class of young orchestra hopefuls, it is seven connected movements that are to be played without pause. The players cannot rest, or tune their instruments. “Our instruments must in time go out of tune, each in its own quite different way,” Mitchell says.
He talks to the class reading a poem, “Four Quartets,” by T.S. Eliot.
“Was he maybe trying to point out some cohesion, some unity between randoms act of life?” Mitchell continues: “What are we supposed to do, stop or struggle to continuously adjust to each other up to the end even if we are out of tune?”
The struggles are Mitchell’s illness, of course, but also lies, infidelity and ego between four people with a passion for music.
The Gelbarts’ grown daughter Alexandra – also a musician – is a fifth to the quartet in a way. She is in Mitchell’s class and also taught by Lerner. I think she struggles to know if she should be a musician just because her parents are and to have her own identity.
At times, though it was minimal in the scheme of the whole film, I think the strife between the characters was taken too far and at others not far enough.
The relationship between Juliette and Robert has the most strain, and love as we learn in the end, and I think that story needed to be the focus just a little bit more.
It’s hardly a flaw of the film, especially with the cast assigned to play out these roles. A lot of Robert’s struggle is tied to being second violin – both literally and in his relationship with Juliette – and I think Hoffman did the best standing out in his role.
Walken plays the subdued personality of Mitchell – despite his struggle perhaps being the worst of them all –  perfectly to balance the clash between Juliette, Robert, Daniel and even Alexandra.
Mitchell does break at one point, requiring Walken to escalate a bit, which he also does perfectly.
When the strife between the quartet – with Alexandra in the mix – goes too far it is mostly with her character.
But that’s nothing negative about Poots’ performance. If nothing else, I hope there are some acting nominations from this film when the big award season hits.
The script is deserving of recognition too with its seamless style following the continuity required in Beethoven’s Opus 131. There are times when the focus is on one character more than the other, but Zilberman and co-writer Seth Grossman bring all the parts together for closure in the end.
Viewers can take away as little or as much as they want from “A Late Quartet,” even just by listening to it in the background.
It reminds me of one of my favorite films, “Lost in Translation,” in that regard.
As with most movies, I recommend giving “A Late Quartet” a try.
However, I do suggest watching it at home. You can crank up the volume, which was a big problem in the theater my sister and I went to, and not deal with the annoyances of the audience around you.
Bravo, I say, Bravo!

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