DVD Review: A Late Quartet

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A string quartet, considered by some to be the optimal ensemble in classical music, is a delicate balancing act. Four people work together, closely, for years, rehearsing, traveling and performing. Some of the best string quartets last for decades, but undoubtedly at the price of many compromises. Unlike an orchestra, where there are a large number of musicians and a leader – the conductor – the string quartet’s size makes the interpersonal relations much more intense.

In this poignant film, we see the Fugue Quartet after 25 years of performing together reach a moment of crisis. The cellist, played by Christopher Walken, has a health problem and decides to retire. This brings up a number of conflicts among the four musicians, who are closely knit in many ways. Second violin (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is married to viola (Catherine Keener), there is conflict between first violin (Mark Ivanir) and second violin, and there are a number of subtle links among the musicians, and the daughter of second violin and viola.

The title of this movie is a play on words. It’s about a “late” – deceased – quartet, or more precisely one on the brink of death, but it’s also about one of Beethoven’s late quartets, the op. 131 quartet, which serves as a leitmotif throughout the film. The choice of the name of the quartet, the Fugue Quartet, is also apt: the story itself proceeds like a fugue, with the various threads of love and conflict among the group are subtly woven together until a finale which ties together many threads in a brilliant resolution. This is a very moving film, though it requires a bit of patience as the different “voices” of the fugue are exposed then developed, before the story harmonizes. But it’s well worth sticking with if as the relationships among these characters become more clear.

The acting is excellent, and the direction subtle and understated. Christopher Walken shows extreme restraint throughout, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener are excellent as the married couple living and working together. Mark Ivanir, an actor I was not familiar with, plays an inflexible musician, who learns, in the end, that he, too, needs to give a bit to allow the ensemble to continue.

A beautiful film, with a subtle story, that is memorable and moving.

For an excellent recording of Beethoven’s late quartets, this set by the Takacs Quartet is an excellent choice. And Vikram Seth’s novel An Equal Music also looks at the relations in a string quartet.