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Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Movie Review: Four Against Beethoven

Superconductor takes on A Late Quartet
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The Fugue String Quartet (l.r.) Mark Ivanir, Philip Seymour Hoffman,
Catherine Keener, Christopher Walken. Image © 2012 RKO Pictures.
It's all Haydn's fault.

Ever since that composer came up with the idea of writing sonata forms for the combination of two violins, viola and violoncello, the string quartet has been one of the most intimate forms of musical expression. Composers have used this format to express their innermost thoughts, delving to depths of misery and despair (Shostakovich) or expressing cosmic truths (Beethoven) through this unique combination of instruments.

A Late Quartet, the new film by Yaron Zilberman explores not just the music but the complex personal intertwinings of the four members of the (fictional) Fugue String Quartet. They are New Yorkers who find themselves thrust into chaos when their cellist, Peter Mitchell (Christopher Walken) develops Parkinson's disease. With retirement looming, he decides to end his concert career with Beethoven's difficult Op. 131, a seven-movement marathon that must be played attacca--without pauses between movements.

The screenplay (by Mr. Zilberman with Seth Grossman) takes pains to explain that the cello's role is to support the other instruments as it moves through the musical depths of a piece. And Mr. Walken's character provides that support--serving as a surrogate father figure to Juliette Gelbart, the group's violist (Catherine Keener) , and paterfamilias to the whole ensemble and their inner circle.

Compounding the problems of the Fugue players is their second violinist. Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is locked in a loveless marriage with Ms. Keener. He also a rivalry with the first violinist, David. The latter is played by Mark Ivanir, a Russian-born Israeli actor with expressive eyes and a haughty demeanor suiting the group's leading soloist. David is a perfectionist, but cannot help falling for his pupil Alex (Imogen Poots.) And to make the disaster complete, Alex is Robert and Julie's daughter.

With a lesser script, A Late Quartet might be what you call a "rosin opera." Thankfully, these familiar collisions are tempered with musical discussions, which delve into the finer points of chamber music in a way that few other movies ever have. Scenes of a visit to an upstate farm (to buy horse-hair for violin bows) and Sotheby's (for a violin auction) add expansion to the little world of these musicians, who work with scores that have the other players' names and cues scribbled above the stave.

This is essentially a stage play with chamber music. Christopher Walken's intensity and pain as Peter is the heart of the film, as he comes to grips with the loss of his wife (played by singer Anne Sofie von Otter in a ghostly, Korngold-inspired cameo) and his motor skills. The actor is now 69. The effects of aging are visible and added to his professional toolbox. The flat, offbeat delivery and ice-blue eyes are still intense--even terrifying, although there are (thankfully) no machine guns hidden in his cello case. At one point a fight breaks out in rehearsal, and the legendary actor's eyes turn to cold, blue marbles. He merely goes upstairs, but the pain conveyed is searing.

As the violist, Catherine Keener has the most complex role, dealing with her husband's ambitions to shift chairs (he wants to play first violin, a decision that would alter the sound of the ensemble) and his infidelity with a sexy running partner (Liraz Charhi). Her steely, seething rage and the tears (brought o when she discovers her daughter's affair with David are as heart-rending as a Schubert melody.

Mr. Hoffman is a fascinating, chameleon-like character. You're never quite sure what he is thinking in any scene, but still waters run deep behind that moon face. His rivalry with David drives the second half of the film, as his temper boils into violence, regret and finally, reconciliation. Mark Ivanir holds his own against these heavy hitting actors, bringing an icy edge to David that only melts in his passion for Alex. In that key, supporting role, Ms. Poots gives a breakout performance.

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