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Passions and parts

by
12 April 2013

Stephen Brown sees a film abound­­­­­­­­­­ing in musical metaphors

Players: the string quartet inA Late Quartet

Players: the string quartet inA Late Quartet

THE first words uttered in the film A Late Quartet (Cert. 15) come from the start of T. S. Eliot's "Burnt Norton". They are read to his students by Peter (Christopher Walken), the cellist and founder of the film's string quartet, linking Beethoven and the poet in a musical metaphor about time and eternity.

Before embarking on this poem in the 1930s - one that also incorporates redundant passages from the play Murder in the Cathedral - Eliot had recently learned of Beethoven's spiritual development as ultimately expressed in his Opus 131, the String Quartet in C-sharp Minor. As Peter says, the 45-minute piece was designed to be played continuously, inevitably causing players' instruments to be out of tune and even time with one another.

It serves as a description of his fellow string players. Despite being privileged to interpret some of earth's most heavenly music, the quartet all but takes leave of this paradise as it hovers on the brink of discord, monotony, disharmony. Such musical analogies keep tum- bling on to the screen. Robert, (the ever-reliable Philip Seymour Hoffman), tired of playing second fiddle, tries to usurp the place of the first violinist Daniel (Mark Ivanir), who represents universal order. There isn't a note, bow stroke, or pause in a score that hasn't been thought through and annotated by him. In contrast, Robert is almost skittish, suggesting that they discard their music copies and play by ear and memory - all too much for Daniel.

The rivalry probably isn't helped by the fact that Robert was also second in the affections of Juliette (Catherine Keener), the viola player. Although now married to him, she was in the past involved with Daniel, and perhaps still holds a candle for him. As with "Burnt Norton", time present and time past may have their effect on the foursome's futures.

The symbiotic relationship between spiritual well-being and artistic wholeness is best illustrated in Peter's situation. He grieves for his dead wife (a flashback memory allows a glimpse of Anne Sofie von Otter gloriously on song), but he is also grappling with the onset of Parkinson's disease. This affects his playing, particularly of Opus 131's nine movements, which Beethoven demanded to be executed attacca ("without a break").

Other complications also conspire to drag the characters down. Salvation, however, is closer than they necessarily realise. Self-examination of their time-bound lives becomes a prelude to reconciliation and restoration.

I earlier mentioned the first words of the film; but, before those, we heard and were soothed on the soundtrack by music's own mysterious language. Only when the quartet resume their primary task in life and undertake an assault on Beethoven's favourite work do they once again become Eliot's "still point of the turning world" - though not without casualty. Redemption comes at price. The newcomer Yaron Zilberman directs this chamber work with sympathy, but throwing in the occasional stormy sforzando.

I would like to have heard more from the viola; but, as in music so in films, women's voices tend to be drowned by alpha males.

On release.

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