Yaron Zilberman‘s A Late Quartet (2012) examines the dynamic of the string quartet, and it is a fascinating one that lends itself well to drama (writes Catherine Feore). These people play together, tour together and occasionally live together, with predictable results – sometimes, they get on each other’s nerves. Faces whiten, egos bristle, bowing directions often differ, to borrow a meter from Tennyson. Quite frankly, who can blame them? There is the odd quartet that is a union made in heaven, the Amadeus is often cited as an example, though they are said to have had the odd ferocious barney. Then there are those quartets whose members refuse to speak to one another, other than through an intermediary, usually a viola player. In the film, the Fugue Quartet makes the transition from a perfect union to seething resentment, followed by (spoiler beware) a rebirth.
The traumatic transition is brought about by the revelation that their cellist Peter (Christopher Walken) has started to show the early signs of Parkinson’s and will have to retire in the near future. This precipitates a request from the second fiddle Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to occasionally play the first violin part in future. Juliette, the viola player and wife of Robert, makes a secret deal with the first violin to convince Robert to stick to the status quo, which opens a can of worms and to Robert’s mind affirms that he is not just fated to play second fiddle in the quartet, but also second fiddle in his marriage. There is also a rather complicated liaison between the first violin and Robert and Juliette’s daughter, and the daughter’s relationship to Peter. If it was a Facebook relationship you would say ‘it’s complicated’. But, while it is complicated, I never found it implausible.
This film does something that American films rarely do, it looks at a relationship 25 years on. There are a lot of parallels drawn between the fading marriage of Robert and Juliette and the challenges the quartet are facing. Ultimately, all come good. It is a reminder that love, especially love that endures, continues to deepen and continues to reward, but as we all know, relationships are never a walk in the park. I was lucky enough to go to the film with two people who know a lot about music, one a very gifted amateur and a surprisingly well adjusted second fiddle, the other an authority on composition. So, for the musical among you, can I give you a health warning - these guys aren’t really musicians, they’re actors. If you are a musician, you might be horrified by what they get up to on their instruments. I was blissfully unaware of their excessive vibrato.
The film has been labelled ‘high brow’ – this seems to be because the story is about a quartet and therefore ‘classical’ music. I will be the first to defend pop music’s vignettes, to say one musical form is ‘high brow’ and another ‘low brow’ is missing the point, they are just different. So wherever your musical prejudices lie, may I suggest that you throw them aside and enjoy the film.
To watch the trailer, click here.