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TORONTO — A terrific cast helps boost an otherwise conventional chamber piece in A Late Quartet, writer-director Yaron Zilberman’s debut feature about a New York string ensemble trying to stay in tune amid a wealth of personal disasters.
Featuring endearing performances from Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener, the film mines both the relationship issues and the Upper East Side neighborhoods of Woody Allen’s best work, but could use an added dose of the Woodster’s jokes to spruce up a self-serious scenario that hits the right notes about half the time. Toronto premiere will be followed by a moderate arthouse following, especially among classical music aficionados.
Indeed, the working musician angle of the screenplay (co-written with Seth Grossman, The Elephant King) remains the most intriguing part of a rather familiar story where mid and late-life crises come to a head for the members of the world renowned, Manhattan-based Fugue String Quartet.
On the brink of celebrating the ensemble’s 25th anniversary, their seasoned cellist, Peter (Walken), learns he has Parkinson’s disease and breaks the bad news, causing a fracture among his fellow musicians: Robert (Hoffman), who can no longer stomach playing second fiddle to violinist David (Mark Ivanir), and Robert’s wife Juliette (Keener), who is having major doubts about their marriage.
An opening sequence, where the four musicians are seen in successive shot/reverse-shots, does a good job revealing the strange camaraderie of a group that spends most of the year rehearsing, touring and performing together, creating an intimacy that goes beyond the workplace towards something significantly more personal.
But outside that scene and a few others where we see the foursome preparing for a recital of Beethoven’s Opus 131 String Quartet in C-Sharp minor—a work the high-sounding David believes is the pinnacle of all concert pieces—the various subplots involving bedroom squabbles, professional jealousies and extramarital affairs feel rather contrived, as if they were filched from a middle-of-the-road dramedy and grafted onto this sophisticated bunch.
Nonetheless, the actors—including Imogen Poots (Greetings from Tim Buckley), who plays Robert and Juliette’s testy daughter—acquit themselves nobly, and are altogether believable as seasoned musicians (at least a half-dozen musical trainers are listed in the end credits, and they serve the film well). Walken is particularly moving as the quartet’s stoical godfather, and it may come as a surprise to some to see how convincingly the King of New York can wax poetically about a T.S. Eliot poem or a Rembrandt painting as his character comes to terms with his grim future.
Set in and around various uptown apartments, with plenty of requisite Central Park rendezvous scenes, A Late Quartet can’t help but evoke the narrow demographics of Allen’s oeuvre, with a cameo by Manhattan’s Wallace Shawn only enforcing the point. But Zilberman’s self-important characters are incapable of taking things lightly, save for one welcome tongue-in-cheek scene where a rehearsal quickly turns sour.
A mellow score by Angelo Badalamenti and low-key Alexa camerawork by Frederick Elmes—both of them veterans of David Lynch—round out an adequate tech package, although the 35mm print screened at Toronto occasionally popped out of focus.
Production companies: Opening Night Productions, Spring Pictures, Concept Entertainment, Unison Films
Cast: Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Mark Ivanir, Imogen Poots
Director: Yaron Zilberman
Screenwriters: Yaron Zilberman, Seth Grossman
Producers: Tamar Sela, Mandy Tagger Brockey, Emanuel Michael, Vanessa Coifman, David Faigenblum, Yaron Zilberman
Executive producers: Adi Ezroni, Ted Hartley, Cassandra Kulukundis, Peter Pastorelli
Director of photography: Frederick Elmes
Production designer: John Kasarda
Costume designer: John G. Aulisi
Music: Angelo Badalamenti
Editor: Yual Shar
Sales: WestEnd Films
No rating, 105 minutes
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