Let’s get this out of the way first: on a certain level, it will always be painful to watch screen actors trying to pass themselves off as musicians. Particularly string players. Adult novices never learn to simulate a natural-looking vibrato or bow arm, and it gnaws away at the viewer’s suspension of disbelief. If I were in charge of casting a movie about a string quartet, I’d look around for actors who had studied these instruments as children so the visuals would have at least a prayer of lining up convincingly with the sound track. Could they be that hard to find? Maybe– Juilliard and MSM-trained Lucia Micarelli is persuasive as violinist on Treme, but her acting range is limited. When Nina Lee, the real-life cellist of the Brentano Quartet (who supply the soundtrack for the movie) performs with the quartet in the last scene of A Late Quartet, it’s like the scene in the Wizard of Oz, when everything turns to color. Lee, who is not an actor, is mentioned by name throughout the film, but kept offstage until those final moments, and for good reason because her presence is almost too intense for the already-intense climax of the movie. Perhaps it’s always a trade-off: the otherwise compelling performances of A Late Quartet‘s cast, which includes Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Catherine Keener, offset the movie’s cringeworthy close-ups.
Yaron Zilberman’s screenplay is impressively researched; the details, both emotional and sensory, feel authentic in ways that blockbusters like August Rush are perfunctory and ridiculous. The story parallels the Beethoven String Quartet (Opus 131) that’s being rehearsed and performed by the fictional Fugue Quartet as they struggle through a winter of difficulty, following their 25th anniversary season. Cellist Peter Mitchell (Walken), recently widowed, learns that he has Parkinson’s Disease, which will end his career. Second violinist Robert Gelbart (Hoffman) is itching, after all these years, for a chance to sit first chair. Violist Juliette Gelbart (Keener) — wife of Robert, surrogate daughter Peter, and former lover of imperious first violinist, Mark Ivanir (Daniel Lerner)– is at loggerheads with their young daughter, Alexandra (Imogen Poots), a violin master’s student at a fictional New York conservatory. Oh, and P.S., Alexandra is having an affair with Mark, who, is her teacher.
Sure, the plot’s a soap opera (hello, and welcome to the world of classical music.) I can think of plenty of real life string quartets with tumultuous, incestuous backstories, not to mention well-known music pedagogues who sleep with their students. There are a few clunkers, most notably a scene in which the Gelbart parents shop for an instrument for their daughter, every aspect of which makes no sense– from not involving the young adult musician in the search for her own violin, to the perfunctory way in which the instrument is selected, to its ridiculous purchase price, about a tenth of what a Gagliano would actually cost. I suppose that scene was written the day the fact-checkers were on vacation.
With its luminous, color-drenched interiors and its affectionate shots of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the film offers visual pleasure in addition to its fine sound track by Beethoven and Angelo (“Twin Peaks”) Badalementi. The story veers from drama to pathos, but not towards sentimentality. A small cast, a small world: the script is like a piece of chamber music itself, and feels like a stage play (one thinks of Michael Hollinger’s Opus), opened up for the big screen. With exception of cartoonishly obnoxious Alexandra, and Pilar, the flamenco dancer with whom Robert has a brief affair, the characters feel genuine. In the theater were I watched the film, the audience was electrified– laughing, gasping, and weeping at all the right moments. I can’t remember the last time I sensed a film audience so engaged.