I had the great fortune to watch a preview of Yaron Zilberman's A Late Quartet, a film that will be released in theaters in New York and in Los Angeles on November 2nd. If you like string quartets (the music and those who play it), I imagine you will find watching this film as enjoyable and worthwhile as I did.
The movie is about (I'm not giving any plot spoilers here) The Fugue, a highly-successful New York-based string quartet that has played together for 25 years. Their oldest member, a cellist named Peter Mitchell (played by Christopher Walken), is diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease, and has made the decision to retire from the quartet. This change, along with influences from people outside of the quartet, begins to erode the delicate balances (musical and familial) that allowed the quartet to function as a successful musical organization.
Walkin plays the elder-statesman-musician very well. Peter Mitchell does not seem to be modeled on a particular cellist or, for that matter, on any musician in particular, but he has qualities of humanity, humility, wisdom, generosity, and morality that many of us like to expect from our chamber music mentors (some have actually lived up to our expectations). Daniel Lerner, the quartet's first violinist, is played by Mark Ivanir. Lerner came to Juilliard as a foreign student, and formed the quartet with Mitchell and two of his equally-young colleagues. He is a self-absorbed perfectionist who makes bows as a hobby. Robert Gelbart, the second violinist in the quartet (who takes risks in his private life and wants to take risks in his musical life as well) is played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. He is married to Juliette Gelbart, the quartet's violist, who is played by Catherine Keener. They have a 24-year-old daughter named Alexandra, played by Imogen Poots, who takes lessons from Daniel Lerner and plays in a quartet that is coached by Peter Mitchell.
Much is made of the unorthodox seven-movement structure of Beethoven's 13th Quartet, his Opus 131. It frames the film, beginning with the opening fugue subject from the first movement, and ending with the final Allegro. Opus 131 accompanies and punctuates much of the action (there is also some non-Beethoven music) and becomes almost like a character. Motives from the first four movements serve as leitmotives for the various relationships between pairs of characters during the exposition. The relationships reveal themselves gradually, and though they end up being quite complicated, they are never implausible.
These quartet musicians are human, and some of them make very human (and often risky) mistakes. I believe that this film does a lot to show people who are not musicians how delicate the personal balances can be in a chamber music ensemble. They are as delicate and as fragile as the complications and balances in the music itself.
The superb actors have clearly spent time becoming familiar with their instruments. Their left hand positions, and the way the vibrato looks compared to what it sounds like might bother some string players a bit, but it is not enough to interfere with my enjoyment of the movie. After all, this is a movie about who we (string players) are and what we do, and these excellent actors are taking certain risks by entering our world and exploring the music that we love and the kinds of relationships that we have. I am particularly grateful for the care that the actors, their coaches, and the camera people put into focusing on the beauty of a straight bow stroke, whether the strokes are made by the actors or "bow arm doubles." Some of the off-the-string strokes show a valiant effort (it takes a good 20 years to develop a fully-functional bow arm). The synchronization between the actors' fingers and the actual sounds, made by the very fine Brentano String Quartet (celebrating their 20th year together), is very good, and the instruments (supplied by Rare Violins of New York) are simply beautiful.
After watching the film I opened my score to Opus 131, and I have to say that the film helped me to "see" it in a new way. Although Opus 131 is not the ideal starting place for people new to Beethoven quartets, the film serves as a perfectly good gateway to the kind of lifetime obsession that many musicians and music lovers through many generations have had with these 16 enduring and constantly-relevant masterpieces.
What better "lay" spokespeople for Beethoven and for string quartets could we ask for than this particular group of actors and actresses and this director?
Watch the Trailer.