A Late Quartet

It's more Ludwig than Van Halen, but Yaron Zilberman's chamber music melodrama is still a band movie at heart

If we are to learn anything from the myriad of music orientated biopics that have saturated cinema over the past number of years (think Ray, Walk The Line and Beyond The Sea and more), it is that not only do the trials and tribulations of a performer’s career prove to be popular and fascinating viewing, but that they can often serve as an opportune metaphor for the journey that is life.

Even hilariously farcical mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap is built around a snug-fitting narrative that some might argue symbolises the ups and downs of human endeavour: ambition leads to disagreement and ultimate resolution. God knows, my own life is plagued by exploding drummers. It's a drag.

While the fictional Fugue Quartet featured in Yaron Zilberman’s chamber music melodrama A Late Quartet are about as far removed from the tasteless stylings of David St Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel as can be imagined, this carefully crafted composition once again sees the 25-year career of a tightly knit group of performers used as metaphor for the rites of passage that mark our collective and individual lives.

Beginning with the news that cellist and backbone of the quartet, Peter Mitchell (played by Christopher Walken), has been diagnosed with early stage Parkinson’s disease, the film explores the group deal with the news. They must also decide whether or not the Fugue will continue once Mitchell becomes entirely debilitated. The drama builds toward the band's final performance as a unit.

Despite the exposition suggesting Mitchell’s illness will be the biggest quandry that the quartet faces, it soon becomes clear that this is, in fact, the least of their worries. The age-old issues of sexual tension and egomania prove far more detrimental to group harmony than Mitchell's physical deterioration.

Indeed, Walken is afforded comparatively little screen time, which is a shame as his performance stands out above the rest, despite the incredibly strong ensemble cast. This performance finally marks his shift from gun toting tough-guy to cosy cardigan-wearing elder statesman, and makes that transition all the more believable.

Thankfully Walken is but one man in a cast of acting powerhouses here, with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener also living up to high expectations as troubled couple Peter and Juliette. Elsewhere, Mark Ivanir does an admirable job of playing preening egomaniac and first chair violinist Daniel Lerner, with Imogen Poots as the coming-of-age daughter, Alexandra, caught in the middle of it all.

Although largely devoid of humour, A Late Quartet appears to pride itself on its wit, particularly regarding the play on words in the title itself. Unfortunately, however, many of the smarter-than-thou metaphors within the narrative feel a little hamfisted. In other words, they're about as subtle as a cello to the back of the head.

Take the interiors, for instance. Here they are, truly, window into the soul. Note the contrast between the tasteful wooden decor of Peter’s home and Daniel’s overly clinical apartment, the roach motel Peter finds himself in and the quirky indie disarray of Alexandra’s first digs.

Sadly the characters don’t fare too much better and, despite the cast milking all they can from Seth Grossman and Zilberman's script, never develop too far beyond one-dimensional tropes. Proceedings verge dangerously towards cliché when a salsa musician begins to tempt Hoffman’s character away from his wife, with her fiery Latin personality serving as a counterpoint to the rigidity of both the quartet and the marriage.

Despite its flaws, thankfully A Late Quartet is somewhat saved not only by sterling performances from the cast, but by sumptuous cinematography and a phenomenal score performed by the Brentano String Quartet. While the on-screen allegory might be blunt and heavy-handed, the music (revolving heavily around Beethoven’s 'Op. 131') is par excellence. At its heart, A Late Quartet is still a band movie, and not a bad one either.

A Late Quartet is at Queen's Film Theatre, Belfast on Thursday, April 11.