Review: Rewarding drama 'A Late Quartet' hits all the right notes

Mark Ivanir, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Christopher Walken and Catherine Keener, from left, star in "A Late Quartet."

Mark Ivanir, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Christopher Walken and Catherine Keener, from left, star in "A Late Quartet."

The film tells the story of a beloved cellist of a world-renowned string quartet who receives a life changing diagnosis, the group's future suddenly hangs ...

Rating: R for language and some sexuality

Length: 105 minutes

Released: November 2, 2012 Limited

Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Imogen Poots, Christopher Walken, Catherine Keener, Wallace Shawn

Director: Yaron Zilberman

Writer: Seth Grossman, Yaron Zilberman

More info and showtimes »

Only a few years after completing his Ninth Symphony, while very sick and profoundly deaf, Beethoven created his late string quartets, works of such inner struggle and profound spiritual yearning that many consider them his supreme achievement.

"A Late Quartet" stars Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener and Mark Ivanir as a celebrated New York City chamber-music ensemble about to tackle Op. 131. It's a marathon composition played without pauses between movements. Over the course of the piece, the players weaken and instruments lose pitch. Physical exhaustion becomes part of the music as Beethoven challenges the performers to struggle against their limitations.

In "A Late Quartet," writer/director Yaron Zilberman finds telling parallels between the piece and the fraying relationships among the creative partners of the Fugue String Quartet. (The Brentano String Quartet provides the actual music.)

Walken, the group's esteemed cellist and founder, mourns his wife's death and struggles with the debilitating effect of Parkinson's disease. Hoffman and Keener, the long-married second violin and viola, face his thwarted desire to move up to first chair and her disillusion with their sputtering relationship. First violinist Ivanir, an exacting egoist, tutors their lovely, talented daughter, Imogen Poots, a relationship fraught with perilous emotional undercurrents. The Fugue is wonderfully harmonious onstage, but their real lives are struggle and discord.

While the story of artistic and romantic rivalries hits familiar notes, you could hardly hope for a more accomplished group to perform it. Zilberman renders the story's upscale, intellectual setting with a pictorial precision that counterpoints the raw immediacy of the performances.

"A Late Quartet" is the essence of a prestige film, an auspicious feature debut for a director whose sensitivity to emotional harmonies is as rewarding as his reverence for timeless, transcendent music.

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