We stumbled upon this marvelous film the other night. I was scrolling through my Apple TV movie selections and came upon this title, A Late Quartet, that rang a bell as having something to do with Beethoven. So we downloaded, and enjoyed one of the best films we've seen in a long time.
It is about Beethoven, and it isn't. It's about the joy and the agony of creative work, about aging, and the loss that goes along with it, about the physical debility that threatens to come with age, and the fears associated with it. It's the story of a string quartet who cellist, the elder member of the group, learns that he is in the early stages of Parkinson's disease and must contemplate the end of his career--and his key role in the quartet. His announcement to The Fugue, which has been playing together for decades, serves to reveal all the cracks in the relationships that have been bandaged over, during their years as a musical entity, by the fact of their playing together and their need for harmony between the four of them.
Husband and wife, second violin and villa, discover just how far they have grown apart, without having recognized it. First violin, the perfectionist, embroiled in an affair with their daughter, his student, must finally confront his vulnerability as a musician and as a man. The cellist, we know, is faced not only with the end of his life as a musician, but also his mortality. Each of them has so much vested in the quartet, they watch painfully as their relationships and the quartet itself become unglued. Their agony is reflected in a late Beethoven string quartet, No. 14, a product of that period when the composer was agonized by his own mortality, and tortured by his loss of hearing and its effects upon his entire life's work and purpose. That music, along with other classical masterpieces, is the constant background theme as the story plays out.
It may sound, from this description, a bit dry and intellectual. Not at all. I found it to be totally gripping from beginning to end--the kind of movie where you can't take your eyes off the screen and the faces of the actors. The acting is simply superb throughout, with the visibly aging Christopher Walken as the cellist, Philip Seymour Hoffman as second violin, Catherine Keener as violist, his wife and Mark Ivanir as first violin. The daughter is played by Imogen Poots. I imagine these actors required some heavy tutoring in their various instruments (apparently they played some parts themselves, the longer segments recorded by the Brentano Quartet) in order to be able to carry off their roles, but after the initial shock of seeing Christopher Walken drawing his bow sternly across the strings, the musical interludes were consistently persuasive. We really believe in their skills, as in their complex personalities. And, to coin a phrase, we feel their pain at every step along the way.
We also feel their joy, their devotion to the music and their dedication to the work of the quartet. The dialogue, when it comes to the discussion of the music and ow it should be played, is intelligent without being stuffy or sounding artificial. The denouement--I won't reveal it, since there must be some who prefer it to remain a mystery--was for me entirely satisfying and appropriate.
I hope that these few words in themselves will prove persuasive, and that readers will want to see this movie for themselves. It's a classic, and like many good movies, it slipped under the radar much too fast.