It is only April, but A Late Quartet deserves to be on most end-of-year lists, and one certainly hopes to see its charms loudly proclaimed, come late December. It is in fact a masterpiece, comparable in its themes and its loving immersion in music with Amour, Michael Haneke’s recent tour de force.
Like Amour, A Late Quartet deals with the loss of a spouse who also happened to be a musical partner. In a further point of comparison with Amour, members of The Fugue - the New York-based string quartet in question - are also music teachers. Moreover, failing powers, and the loss of musical dexterity due to age and illness are central to both of these very fine films.
The Fugue have been playing together for 25 years. They are husband and wife, Robert and Juliette Gelbart, second violin and viola, respectively, who met and married as the quartet formed. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener, respectively, bring striking emotional courage and deep sensitivity to these roles.
Driven by their obsessive, perfectionist first violinist Daniel Lerner (Mark Ivanir), The Fugue appear to get on fine as friends - and in the case of two of them, marital partners - who happen to work together. They have, when needed, a touching sense of mutual affection, developed over long years spent performing together.
The veteran of the group, cellist Peter Mitchell, is played by Christopher Walken with profound empathy, and a curiously economical mastery of character. This is one of the 70-year-old actor's greatest roles in a distinguished career. Peter is a practical, yet curiously self-effacing character who is mourning his singer wife, Miriam. (The departed wife re-appears in her husband’s memory in a beautiful cameo by mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie Von Otter.)
Nowadays, the members of The Fugue are deeply engaged with Beethoven's String Quartet No 14, opus 131, which Beethoven instructed must be played with no pauses for tuning or to draw breath. So it is a particularly challenging piece of music, mirroring the different personal challenges that will face the members of The Fugue as the film unfolds.
Tensions eventually explode into real and deeply compelling drama, involving infidelity in one instance, and an affair between a teacher and pupil in another.
Will the Fugue survive it all to play one final concert featuring all four original members?
A bittersweet creation, which must be seen by all discerning cinema-goers.