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.

8 replies
  1. Bruce says:

    Boy, I had a totally different reaction to this movie. As a string player in orchestras for 30 years, I find movie actors playing classical string players distractingly annoying as it looks so fake to me. It did in this movie. I guess I consider the members of a long-standing, world renown string quartet to be among the most disciplined of creatures, and the lack of emotional and relational discipline among these four stretched way beyond credibility to almost absurdity. I hated this movie, despite the quality of actors.

    • kirk says:

      First, I can understand that the string playing looked fake, but I feel for you that you were not able to get beyond that.

      Second, expecting any group of four people to work together so closely for 25 years and be emotionless seems a bit naive.

  2. rootlesscosmo says:

    Also good: Indivisible By Four, a book about the Guarneri Quartet, and High Fidelity, a movie about them. (Not the Cameron Mackintosh one, obviously.)

  3. shiveringgoat says:

    Thanks for this watching the film tomorrow night.
    The Takacs Quartes Beethoven I LOVE the whole thing is amazing. I used to buy Quad/ATC Hi Fi from an eccentric but lovely couple who lived at the side of Ullswater in the Lake District, Ian Bewley and his wife were string players and he was obsessed with the Hungarian Quartet version recorded on EMI in the 1950′s of Beethoven due to the unique way the Hungarians are taught music (through singing). He also loved the Takacs as they were taught by one of the Hungarian Quartets string players, I remember staying there as it was also a guest house and hearing the Takacs playing Haydn on Decca when they came out in 1989 on this amazing hi fi system, timeless playing.
    I also have a very special version of the op 132 quartet which is my favourite of the late quartets, by The Fitzwilliam quartet also on Decca, they only recorded this and didn’t complete the cycle, the CD is long deleted but Amazing playing and a gem of a recording.

    Hope to see you in Pie Land™ north soon :) thanks again for pointer on this film Shaun :)

  4. Shaun H says:

    I really enjoyed this film, I bought the Brentano Quartet’s 131 which was used in the film, their new CD of op.132 came out yesterday. Superb!

  5. David Roessler (Dave) says:

    Totally agree with your review and comment — the bit in the film on Parkinson’s Disease was correct too. I hear that the replacement cello player at the end is a real player and for me she was the one weakness in the movie because, unlike the principals, she lacked presence.

    Welcome to England — hope York has another blue sky for you this year (tho’ truth to tell, in the years I lived in the UK there were a lot of quite gorgeous days).

    Trivia question, please: In the movie, what was that hi-fi device (all gray plastic curves) on Walken’s mantle piece, sideboard or whatever? I’m thinking perhaps a clever bit of product placement for Bose — do you know how good the thing is as a record player?

    • kirk says:

      I think it was one of those Bose things; I’ve never heard one, so I don’t know if the sound quality matches the hype.

  6. shiveringgoat says:

    Still loving the music from this film, I was familiar with the late Beethoven String Quartet used in the film (my first choice at home for the full cycle being the Takacs String Quartet on Decca), but these US players of the Brentano String Quartet are wonderful, I just picked up their new recording of the op 132 & 135 Beethoven quartets in 24bit it’s absolutely fantastic after I brought down the kHz to 48 so it can play on my iPhone surrounded by peasants on the bus it liberates me!.
    The op 132 is my favourite of all the Beethoven String Quartets, I have a very special recording by the Fitzwilliam String Quartet that was recorded by Decca in the 80′s and is hard to get hold of on CD, sadly they only recorded the op 132 and didn’t complete the cycle, its outstanding, BUT this new version by Brentano especially in 24bit is up there! Cheers Kirk:)
    I urge you to check out these new recording by the Brentano Quartet they are special.


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