He remains a documentarian at heart though as his film astutely explores how the various roles in a string quartet support each other and work together to create a singular sound.
Zilberman then goes the next step by creating four personalities that underscore the psychological, emotional and philosophical nature of those roles in producing that sound.
This is quite an imaginative film for adults willing to step outside the usual genre and star-vehicle boxes that reside in every multiplex.
The screenplay by Zilberman and Seth Grossman attracted a brilliant cast in Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Christopher Walken and Mark Ivanir. As with their musician characters, these actors form a perfect ensemble that complements and inspires individual performances.
The film does go off the rails a bit in the final act (movement?) when what had been a nuanced, carefully calibrated drama turns soap opera-ish.
The Late Quartet has played together for a quarter century. That’s over 3,000 performances. Which means a lot of rehearsals, travel (seven months a year) and shared intimacy among four people who might as well be family.
All this is suddenly threatened when the group’s eldest member and spiritual godfather, Peter (Walken), is diagnosed with early Parkinson’s disease.
While drugs and therapy may allow him to play a concert celebrating the quartet’s 25th anniversary, he declares that concert will be his last.
A replacement is sought but this turns out to be the easiest decision the group faces. Since the “sound” will have to change with a new member, Robert (Hoffman) decides to float an idea that has nagged him for some time.
Instead of always being second violinist to first violinist Daniel (Ivanir), why don’t they occasionally switch chairs?
Daniel, a flinty, egotistical perfectionist, turns the idea down without a moment’s thought. More stressful for Robert, his violinist wife Juliette (Keener) refuses to support her husband’s request.
Soon not just the group but Robert and Juliette’s marriage come unhinged. Seems Juliette married Robert after a long-ago fling with Daniel so the worry emerges, at least in Robert’s mind, that he plays second fiddle in more ways than one.
Since the couple’s beautiful violinist daughter, Alexandra (Imogen Poots, a real find, pictured left), has started training with Daniel, the film can show how much a perfectionist he is as she accompanies him to a horse farm to pick out just the right tail hair for a new bow.
Then the delicate balance that has maintained the group professionally and personally completely unravels when Alexandra sets out to seduce her teacher.
This last development introduces too much melodrama into what until this point has been a reasonably articulated drama revolving around Peter’s distress over his future life, the strain in Robert and Juliette’s marriage and the challenge of Robert’s request.
Zilberman cleverly arranges his drama around Beethoven’s Opus 131. Composed in the final year of the great man’s life, he insisted the seven movements should be played “attacca” or without pauses in between.
This, of course, means instruments are bound to go out of tune. So each musician must struggle to adapt his pitch individually and as a group. This serves as a metaphor for the long-term relationships that anchor the quartet.
The acting is quite marvelous, as you would expect, particularly Walken’s touching performance as a man who, having recently lost his wife, now faces the loss of his career and very identity.
Hoffman nails all the frustration his second violinist has willingly lived with so long but now no longer can. Then in a moment of weakness, he falters.
Keener nicely portrays the ambivalence she feels about her life, husband and career only to be brought up short by her daughter over what the daughter sees as her shortcomings as a mother.
I can’t say enough about Ivanir, who plays both a perfect jerk yet the most intelligent, artistic and sophisticated member of the quartet. He brilliantly brings all these qualities together into a single exasperating, compelling character.
All cast members handle their instruments with convincing realism, a tribute to the weeks of practice under many coaches. Again life imitates art (or is it the other way around) as the actors impose fierce professionalism on these roles of fierce professionals.
A melodic score by Angelo Badalamenti and thoughtful compositions by cinematographer Frederick Elmes complete the sense that this film is a beautifully rendered dramatic chamber piece.
Opens: November 2, 2012 (Entertainment One Films)
Production companies: Opening Night Productions, Spring Pictures, Concept Entertainment, Unison Films, Westend Films
Cast: Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Mark Ivanir, Imogen Poots
Director: Yaron Zilberman
Screenwriters: Yaron Zilberman, Seth Grossman
Producers: Tamar Sela, Mandy Tagger Brockey, Emanuel Michael, Vanessa Coifman, David Faigenblum, Yaron Zilberman
Executive producers: Adi Ezroni, Ted Hartley, Cassandra Kulukundis, Peter Pastorelli
Director of photography: Frederick Elmes
Production designer: John Kasarda
Costume designer: John G. Aulisi
Music: Angelo Badalamenti
Editor: Yual Shar
R rating, 105 minutes