A Late Quartet

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.

These opening words from TS Eliot’s “Burnt Norton”, the first of his Four Quartets, also open A Late Quartet

They’re hard to spot, though: Peter (played by Christopher Walken) recites them to his students as if they’re his own personal, languidly elliptical thoughts.

The tone is set for a film that deals intimately and conversationally with the grandest questions of time, art and life.

Peter is the cellist of the celebrated Fugue Quartet, darlings of the cultured Manhattan world where they’ve lived and worked together for 25 years.

When Peter is diagnosed with Parkinsons, the future of the quartet looks uncertain and the fault lines that riddle these four intricately interlocking personal and professional relationships begin to show.

Director Yaron Zilberman draws us into the esoteric world of world-class chamber music by blending the specific with the familiar, and the intensely dramatic with the mundane.

As in any piece of music, the silences here are as telling and as variously textured as the sounds. 

The film’s soul is Beethoven’s String Quartet No.14 Op. 131 – referred to sometimes affectionately, sometimes grimly as “131”. This is the piece the Fugue Quartet are rehearsing for what will be Peter’s final performance. 

We get to know its plaintive strains well. The film succeeds by building its inquiries into perfectionism, loyalty, regret, and artistry around the endlessly rich piece – rather than attempting to imitate it.

On top of the charged relationships criss-crossing the quartet are the interventions of characters on their peripheries. There’s even a dinner scene with Wallace Shawn, which fans of My Dinner with Andre earlier this season will relish.

The genius of A Late Quartet is in holding so many threads of high drama together – not quite in harmony, but in compelling, moreish dissonance.

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