A Late Quartet begins with Peter (Christopher Walken) addressing a class on the nature of Beethoven’s Opus 131. A quartet that requires continuous playing, without pause, between movements, its unique beauty can supposedly absorb the inevitable detuning, flaws and disharmony in its playing. As a metaphor for the string quartet of which Peter has been a part for 25 years it could hardly be on the nose, a recurring problem that Yaron Zilberman’s middlebrow soap opera rarely overcomes.
Only very occasionally about the music its characters supposedly live for, A Late Quartet’s main focus is actually the long-repressed resentments and feuds between its seasoned ensemble. Unleashed by Peter’s announcement that he is stepping aside after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, the search for a replacement cellist soon explodes in a series of shouty arguments, as the members of ‘The Fugue’ wrestle with the way in which their instruments define them ever-so-perfectly. Robert (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is tired of playing understudy to first violinist Daniel (Mark Ivanir), whose controlled and structured playing mirrors his lack of empathy, whilst viola player Juliette (Catherine Keener) is determined to keep the group in harmony, even as her marriage to Robert begins to crumble.
Not without its touching moments, A Late Quartet nevertheless can’t truly escape the eye-rolling determinism of its script, with only a pragmatic, wry Christopher Walken truly convincing as a man who has lived inextricably bound with his music. The other players seem infinitely more comfortable with domestic drama, with their apparent musical obsession never truly convincing. In this light, Zilberman’s decision to give the flat, mimed playing displayed his cast the minimum possible screen time is understandable, but also removes the emotional levity the material so desperately needs. By the time Walken steals the film with an emotional farewell, the real life cellist who replaces him sticks out like a sore thumb. It just goes to show that when you try to make a film with art in the background, it’s rarely a substitute for the real thing.