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A Late Quartet ***

A Late Quartet - eOne Studio

It's all about maintaining that delicate balance. Making sure one element doesn't overshadow the others. Out of disparate but uncannily complementary elements you achieve the kind of symmetry that can't easily be put into words. You've transported your intended audience into a rarefied realm with almost imperceptible sleight of hand, until they don't know what hit them.

So it goes for a string quartet as they strive to attain perfect harmony, but the lofty goal may also be applied to the ways its members cope with the curve balls life throws at them. The chamber drama “A Late Quartet,” a potent fiction feature debut for documentarian Yaron Zilberman (“Watermarks”), places viewers in stifling close quarters with its four major players until the screen becomes a pressure cooker for an array of roiling tensions and unchecked egos, including, it must be said, Zilberman's. It's quite fortunate, then, that he possesses the chops to justify his highfalutin cinema-of-quality ambitions, even when his subject matter is not nearly as sophisticated as he thinks it is.

As they have done throughout their past 24 seasons, the world-renowned Fugue String Quartet starts preparing for another season of sold-out engagements and standing ovations. This year's daunting mountain to climb: Beethoven's String Quartet No. 14, Op. 131, which, according to the composer's wishes, must be played from beginning to end with no pauses. As has always been the case, first violin Daniel Lerner sets the precise, rigid tone for his colleagues, and husband-and-wife team of Robert (second violin) and Juliette Gelbart (viola) dutifully follow his lead. Closing out the team is cellist Peter Mitchell, the group's mentor and the one responsible for bringing them together in the first place. He's the connective tissue that has enabled the ensemble's career to endure.

So what happens when Peter (a phenomenal Christopher Walken) casually discloses he's experiencing early symptoms of Parkinson's disease? The revelation triggers a snowballing succession of hidden resentments finally coming to light, such as a long-held desire by Robert (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) to alternate first violin with the intransigent, hardheaded Daniel (“Schindler's List”'s Mark Ivanir), or Juliette's (Catherine Keener) realization that her marriage is no longer the storybook romance on which she embarked more than two decades ago. And what about Daniel, a mercurial perfectionist who's too busy correcting the flaws of his pupil Alexandra (Imogen Poots) to notice her growing, decidedly non-academic devotion to him? It must be noted that the infatuated student is Robert and Juliette's coquettish daughter.

A Late Quartet - eOne Studio

The rondelay unfolds with all too deliberate precision, until it all comes to a head during a heated rehearsal that Zilberman stages with galvanizing fervor. He slowly turns the screws on his characters and, by extension, the audience, but to arrive to that explosive scene, the filmmaker, working from a literate screenplay he co-wrote with Seth Grossman, indulges in sudsy contrivances that occasionally lend a self-consciously provocative tawdriness to his otherwise refined, NPR-friendly affair. We get it: Look beneath the cultured veneer of these classically trained artists and you find Jerry Springer-ready domestic crises. A scene in which an illicit tryst between two characters is interrupted by an inopportune visit from the last person they'd want to catch them in such a compromising position wouldn't feel out of place in a lowbrow Hollywood farce. “A Late Quartet” is impeccably tasteful, except when it's not.

There are more subtle ways to dramatize these tightly coiled scenarios, but Zilberman keeps assuring us that this is the kind of gourmet cinema that's good for you. (He was, after all, able to nab two former David Lynch collaborators – composer Angelo Badalamenti and cinematographer Frederick Elmes – and their input does not disappoint.) He ought to be thankful that he's got Walken to rise above the younger characters' pity party. “A Late Quartet” is always on surer footing whenever the Oscar winner is onscreen. A delightful sequence in which he recounts his encounters with legendary cellist Pablo Casals to his students plays like a self-contained short film. It doesn't particularly move the story forward, but the sequence nevertheless feels like an oasis from the strident histrionics that increasingly take over Zilberman's blistering powder keg of a movie. Surrounded by the unraveling lives of his longtime musical partners, the understated gravity that Walken gives this fading arts patriarch is a gratifying reminder that it's the quieter notes that are often the most resonant, onstage and off.

Ruben Rosario is a film critic in South Florida. You can find him online at Miami Art Zine, Beached Miami, and Café con Film.

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