Beethoven’s Quartet in C sharp minor (Op. 131), we learn early in Yaron Zilberman’s movie, is a complicated piece of music. The pace is difficult and requires stamina, and any string quartet that attempts it must “struggle to adjust to each other,” one learned character tells us. The musicians must trust one another and themselves and work together to achieve its transcendence.
As a metaphor for the chaos of life and our need to lean on each other to struggle through it, the piece is a good choice. But watching A Late Quartet feels more like sitting through a Classical Music 101 lecture than entertainment. Set during a snowy winter in Manhattan, the film follows the attempts of the esteemed Fugue Quartet (Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Mark Ivanir) to rehearse for their upcoming season. They have played together for 25 years but are facing an implosion. The cellist (Walken) has received a troubling diagnosis that will render him unable to play much longer. The second violinist (Hoffman) and his viola-playing wife (Keener) are facing temptation and infidelity — and his ego can’t take much more of playing second fiddle (literally). The arrogant first violin (Ivanir), who has always put music first, is about to succumb to a different, more lustful rhythm.
The setup is soapy and predictable, with plot lines that are suddenly resolved without warning, but what hurts A Late Quartet most is its tempo. Some of the characters behave too placidly amid all the emotional disturbances, and the story plods along at a stultifying pace as the characters explain us how much music means to them or advise us on the perils of being a soloist or reminisce about the old days. The film only comes close to crescendo once the script allows Hoffman room to roar, the pain in his eyes more moving than a single bar of Beethoven. He has never given a subpar performance, and he’s terrific here as a man tired of being shoved out of the spotlight, at home and on stage, and more than ready to finally do something about it.
For a film that relies so heavily on the lasting power of a classical master, A Late Quartet never really converts any viewers to his church. There’s no vibrant moment in which the strings touch our hearts, when we finally understand in our bones why these notes have stirred souls for centuries. A Late Quartet tells us the music must go on but gives us little reason to care.
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christopher Walken, Catherine Keener, Mark Ivanir, Imogene Poots.
Director: Yaron Zilberman.
Screenwriters: Seth Grossman, Yaron Zilberman.
Producers: Vanessa Coifman, David Faigenblum, Emanuel Michael, Tamar Sela, Mandy Tagger, Yaron Zilberman.
An Entertainment One Studios release. Running time: 105 minutes. Language, some sexuality. Playing in Miami-Dade: Aventura, Sunset, Tower; in Broward: Gateway.