The talented members of a world renowned string quartet, about to emabark on their 25th season performing together, are tested when one of their number falls sick with a debilitating illness that may well jeopardise their entire endeavour. Once these first cracks appear, problems within the group – both new and lingering – bubble to the surface and threaten the future of the collective and as a result their careers.
Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener and Mark Ivanir play the four musicians, whose livelihoods are suddenly thrown into upheaval when Walken’s character – their cellist – is diagnosed with Parkinson’s. While all four actors give impressive performances – and it is fantastic to see the little-known Ivanir given equal billing alongside such recognised heavyweights – the film struggles to win over its audience due to the self-indulgence and generally reprehensible behaviour of its characters.
Hoffman and Keener are the married couple at the centre of the group, whose precocious daughter (played by Imogen Poots) is taking violin lessons from Ivanir’s intellectual and musical genius. The lifestyle of these characters is somewhat akin to that of Woody Allen’s creations – living overly-academic and privileged lives in a version of Manhattan we don’t often see elsewhere. When Walken backs out of their “family”, it sparks a long-suppressed power struggle between the two violinists (Hoffman and Ivanir), which inevitably spills into their personal lives. Keener’s character is forced to take a side, and must choose between what is best for her husband, best for herself and most fortuitous for the quartet.
A Late Quartet is by no means a bad film. The performances are all excellent and the direction unflashy yet confident. We are given some wonderful music to savour and even to learn something about, but also, we are asked to care about these characters in ways the script is sometimes unable to justify. Although they are intriguing personas and ripe for conflict, they are also vile and morally bankrupt. As a result, the film – written and directed by Yaron Zilberman – proves frustrating viewing, as it assumes we don’t want to see these arrogant snobs tear each other apart.