A Late Quartet Review
New York, the present day. The Fugue String Quartet comprises Daniel Lerner (Mark Ivanir) on first violin, Robert Gelbart (Philip Seymour Hoffman), second violin, Juliette Gelbart (Catherine Keener), viola, and Peter Mitchell (Christopher Walken), cello. They have been together for twenty-five years. Robert and Juliette have a daughter, Alex (Imogen Poots), also a violinist, being trained by Daniel. Then, one day, Peter learns that he is in the early stages of Parkinson's and his days as a professional performing musician are numbered. The repercussions of this announcement are wider than anyone expected.
A Late Quartet is a debut dramatic feature for Yaron Zilberman, who co-wrote (with Seth Grossman), produced and directed, his only previous credit being a 2004 documentary, Watermarks. While it is certainly nothing groundbreaking nor especially indepth, it does however give its audience plenty of pleasure: in the writing and especially the acting, no surprise given that high-powered cast. It's intelligent drama for grown-up audiences and that's certainly something to be grateful for and which you don't always get in a cinema.
The title has several connotations: a later work by Beethoven which is challenging to perform (having seven movements instead of the usual four and to be played without a break), and the quartet that has sustained four friendships and one marriage for a quarter of a century – one late as in its life, and late as in soon to be no more. For the benefit of non-listeners to classical music, the script does take time to explain the dynamics of a string quartet, and those shed light on the characters therein. Robert is beginning to feel unfulfilled by his essentially supportive role and wants to see how far he can get in the leading role of first violin, and suggests that he and Daniel alternate as first and second. Meanwhile, an infidelity with a dancer puts his marriage to Juliette under stress. Meanwhile, Daniel is torn between the security of being part of a quartet and the fear of being a soloist. His tutoring of Alex crosses the line between personal and professional and they begin an affair. And Alex has her own issues, of her mother not being there for her seven months a year because of touring. This is the sort of layered scriptwriting that should be a given but sadly too often isn't.
Zilberman's direction doesn't draw undue attention to itself, being more in the service of the script and actors, but that doesn't really matter. Ivanir is the least well-known of the central quartet, but he certainly holds his own against the others, and Imogen Poots follows an eyecatching performance in The Look of Love with an equally good one here, complete with (to these ears) a convincing American accent. Ivanir, Hoffman, Keener and Walken are actually miming to the playing of the real-life Brentano String Quartet, but not so you'd notice. The film is handsomely shot by Frederick Elmes. Madhur Jaffrey appears in one scene as Peter's doctor and real-life Swedish operatic mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter turns up briefly as Peter's now-dead wife.
A Late Quartet is released on DVD and Blu-ray by Curzon Film World, and it was the former that was received for review. For pricing comparisons for the Blu-ray go here. The DVD is dual-layered and encoded for Region 2 only.
Digitally captured on the Arri Alexa and shown in cinemas in Scope, A Late Quartet is transferred to DVD in the correct ratio of 2.40:1, anamorphically enhanced. There's certainly nothing to complain about: Elmes's camerawork gives the story appropriately autumnal hues, and the transfer is sharp and solid as it needs to be, and blacks are fine. It's not really a filmic look – if you've seen enough digitally-captured movies recently you'll know what I mean – but I've no doubt it's the intended one.
The soundtrack comes in Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Surround (2.0) variants. There's not a great difference between the two, this being quite a dialogue-driven film. The music, both diegetic and non-diegetic, sounds fine, though given that this DVD has PAL speedup, you may feel differently if you have absolute pitch, which I don't. (The Blu-ray should not have any speed-up issues, though it's not here for me to judge.) After so many discs of English-language films without hard-of-hearing subtitles, including others from this distributor, I'm very glad to say that not only does this DVD have them, it also has a Dolby Surround audio-descriptive track.
The only extra is the theatrical trailer, which is in a narrower ratio (1.78:1, anamorphically enhanced) and noticeably contrastier than the main feature. It runs 2:27.