Film review: A Late Quartet - it's only baroque'n'roll (but I like it)

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We've all seen movies about a rock band being torn apart by rivalries, resentments, warring egos – "personal and musical differences", in the PR-approved phrase. But how about the story of a string quartet collapsing under similar strains? True, the bad behaviour doesn't get as extravagant in classical music circles.

You don't see much of drugs or groupies. Instead of TVs being hurled out of hotel-room windows, the nearest thing to unruly in A Late Quartet is someone breaking a vase, accidentally. But the feelings among the string-players, withheld for the sake of professional unity, are found to be quite as intense and discordant as their long-haired brethren in rock.

The title of Yaron Zilberman's film (his debut feature) refers both to the New York-based and internationally renowned Fugue Quartet, and to Beethoven's autumnal Opus 131. This is the piece which the Quartet will perform in celebration of 25 years together. Yet their founder-mentor and cellist Peter has no sooner announced this than he receives a terrible coup de vieux, diagnosed with the early stages of Parkinson's. "Wow," he says softly on hearing it from his doctor, one of many small things which Christopher Walken, as Peter, nails beautifully.

With his saucer eyes and violent brush-cut hair, Walken still looks like someone recovering from electro-shock therapy. Yet after years of playing ne'er-do-wells and nutters, he's very touching as a straight man, a recently widowed musician who's devoted himself to his art and now finds that self inexplicably betraying him.

The news sends his colleagues into an emotional tailspin. Violist Juliette (Catherine Keener), who has regarded Peter as a father-figure, finds herself at odds with her husband, Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the second violinist who has secretly longed to swap chairs with first violinist Daniel (Mark Ivanir), the group's controlling perfectionist and – further complication – an old flame of Juliette's. Peter's imminent departure becomes almost a cue for the rest of them to get the gloves off, or their trousers.

Robert's jogging pal in Central Park happens to be a super-hot flamenco dancer (Liraz Charhi), and what's a pudgy middle-aged guy to do when she starts giving him hot-eyed looks from the stage? This Woody Allen-ish behaviour takes a starker turn when Alexandra (Imogen Poots), Juliette and Robert's daughter, hops into bed with her exacting violin tutor – oh, hello again – Daniel.

As you may gather, A Late Quartet doesn't stint on the melodrama, and the script (co-written by Zilberman and Seth Grossman) hits some horribly misplaced notes. Nobody, not even a flamenco dancer, should have to say the line, "What happened between us last night was rare." There's also a clenched tastefulness about these Manhattanites that feels a little superior. The smallest dab of vulgarity has been banished.

Woody Allen's spirit also inhabits their whiny sense of entitlement – being outbid on a $25,000 violin at Sotheby's will not rate as a moment of angst for any but the monstrously self-absorbed. Like Allen's recent output it's very short on humour: surely even thin-skinned musicians like to crack a joke now and then, and when you have players of the calibre of Walken, Keener and Hoffman it seems rather a shame not to.

But Zilberman hasn't forgotten Allen's middle-period greatness, either, in the grace notes of an appearance by Wallace Shawn (evoking memories of his charming cameo as Diane Keaton's ex-husband in Manhattan) or in the furious vocal "solos" of his stricken quartet. Hoffman, a maestro of moroseness, practically shudders with rage in his big confrontation with Daniel: your playing is like your character, he says, "rigid and monotonous and self- loving", and one hears a career's worth of resentment boil over in the words.

Keener also has a wonderful scene, more subtly painful, when she tries to mollify her husband by acclaiming him "the best second violinist" there is. (That's on a par with being told you're the best minor poet there is.) Mark Ivanir, as the relative unknown of the ensemble, doesn't disgrace himself in this brilliant company, though one suspects that as the closest to an authorial figure in the piece, his Daniel is too leniently treated for his sneakiness and imperious self-love. Poots also comes through as the daughter who has been saving up home truths to drop on her mother like bombs.

A Late Quartet contains much that is conventional in terms of genre (the group split) and dramatic crisis (illness, adultery, familial bust-ups). It sometimes feel too rarefied for its own good, though I don't doubt that there are musicians who have agonised over the pull between duty and ambition: should I serve the needs of the group or pursue my own talent? For all that the personal stakes are high, a pinch of humour wouldn't go amiss.

There's also the problem of actors playing musicians, which is the same one as actors playing footballers – it's hard to fake the real thing. You can tell that Walken et al are not playing their instruments (the Beethoven piece we hear is played by the Brentano String Quartet). In every other respect those actors are outstanding, and they lend a magnificent burnish to a grown-up film. Chamber music will never be "the new rock'n'roll", but I mean it as the highest praise to call this the best account of a group imploding since Anvil! The Story of Anvil.

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