A Late Quartet is drama for all senses

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Starring Christopher Walken, Catherine Keener, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Rating unavailable. Opens Friday, December 21, at the Fifth Avenue Cinemas

There’s a special unity built into the number four, as any fan of the Beatles or the Ninja Turtles can tell you. And a quadruple dynamic drives A Late Quartet, which needs that energy—as well as its refinement—to justify a few of the film’s soapier reaches.

It was directed and cowritten by Israeli-born filmmaker Yaron Zilberman, whose only previous feature was Watermarks, a documentary about competitive swimmers meeting more than 60 years after the Nazis drove them out of Vienna. Keeping things on a more intimate scale, Quartet takes as its organizing principal and namesake one of Ludwig van Beethoven’s last and most profound creations, his String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp Minor Opus 131.

That sublimely transcendent piece, with its uniquely patterned and quietly relentless structure, is slated to anchor a concert celebrating a quarter-century of the Fugue String Quartet, consisting of: a long-married duo (Catherine Keener and Philip Seymour Hoffman) on viola and second violin; a potent, stern-faced first violinist (Mark Ivanir); and an older, wiser cello player (you know a movie is different when Christopher Walken is its stabilizing presence).

When the cellist encounters early signs of Parkinson’s disease and might have to retire, this uncorks long-bottled rivalries within the group. The lead fiddler is also tutoring the couple’s potentially talented daughter (the mildly annoying Imogen Poots), and you don’t have to be a second-chair daddy to imagine how that might be stressful.

The tale is, if anything, overloaded with conflict, considering that its insights into the creative process—seen in unusually convincing rehearsal and performance sequences—offer enough drama to keep eye, ear, and heart engaged. But even at its most lugubrious, this gentle four-hander lets the actors approach the material with just the right touch. Quartets often have stars, of course, and Hoffman brings a memorably restrained fury to this particular chamber.

Watch the trailer for A Late Quartet.
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