Documentary filmmaker Yaron Zilberman (Watermarks) leaves an indelibly touching impression with his feature film debut, writing and directing a simple tale of a world-renowned string quartet on the verge of being torn apart by its complicated internal relationships. That it touches the line between drama and soap operatics without pole-vaulting over it is due largely to its superb cast.
Christopher Walken is its lynch pin as Peter, a music teacher and cellist for the Fugue String Quartet, who is diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease on the eve of the group’s 25th season. He decides — medication permitting — that the first show of the season will be his last, choosing to take a bow with Beethoven’s notoriously tricky Quartet Opus 131.
Second violinist Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman) views the imminent change as the opportunity to pursue his long-repressed desire to alternate as first violin, a suggestion that does not sit well with the group’s founder and first violinist, Daniel (Mark Ivanir). Robert is deeply wounded when his wife Juliette (Catherine Keener), the group’s viola player who was raised by Peter and his late wife, sides with Daniel; Robert’s response puts their marriage on the rocks.
Further complicating matters is Robert and Juliette’s daughter Alexandra (Imogen Poots), an aspiring violinist who is a student of both Peter and Daniel, the latter of whom she has a growing attraction for.
It’s the sort of material that, in most cases, would collapse into a heap of shrieking melodrama within the first 20 minutes; that it doesn’t is due in part to Zilberman’s intelligence and restraint as writer, but mostly because he assembled a cast of some of the best actors on the market, each of whom performs with measured strokes as this bright but damaged family of wounded people grapple with a quarter-centuries worth of resentment. Overall, it’s Walken (having a great year with this and Seven Psychopaths) who ties them together, with an unusually but effectively subdued performance as a man trying to salvage what he can in the twilight of his life.
Zilbeman’s use of Opus 131 was a clever one, since it sums up his characters completely: A notoriously challenging work, it requires its performers to play through seven movements without a break, forcing them to support one another even as their instruments slip out of tune.