For a first-time feature director, Yaron Zilberman really hit the jackpot with his cast for A Late Quartet. Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener and Mark Ivanir star as a world-famous string quartet whose personal and professional lives are thrown into turmoil when their oldest member – Walken – is diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. It’s a stuffy sort of story, with more than the odd melodramatic tendency, but in the hands of these four talented players it becomes a stirringly authentic study of the complex and often fragile ties that hold long-term relationships together.
Walken gives his most nuanced performance to date as the fatherly cellist, Peter, exuding waves of compassion and melancholy from those icy blue eyes more commonly seen staring out of some of cinema’s scariest psychopaths. Seymour Hoffman does what he does better than almost anyone else ever, managing to be at once loveable and loathsome as second violinist Robert, who’s sick of being overlooked both in the group and in his marriage to viola-player Juliette – played with supreme understatement by Keener. Inexplicably-underused Ukrainian actor Mark Ivanir (Schindler’s List, The Good Shepherd) completes the foursome as perfectionist first violinist Daniel.
Shot on-location in a very wintry New York, the film has an almost documentary feel at times – Zilberman made his name with the award-winning documentary Watermarks – and often gives a fly-on-the-wall style glimpse into the lives of Manhattan’s privileged classical music set. The fact that the actors all had intensive tuition in their characters’ chosen instruments makes the concert and rehearsal scenes feel all the more real – no cunning camera angles or cutting to close-ups of professional musicians needed here.
Despite a few unsalvageably duff notes in a sub-plot involving Daniel hooking up with Robert and Juliette’s daughter (rendered both headstrong and vulnerable by the excellent Imogen Poots), the accomplished performances gradually draw you into the emotional quagmire of the plot, before throwing you in at the deep end with a rousing concert-hall finale. Like Beethoven’s famously intense and hectic Opus 131 in C# Minor, a recurring motif in the film, you’re left wondering just how – and whether – the players will make it to the end of the film without it all falling apart, and that’s what keeps you captivated until the last note fades.