I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead
a life worthy of the calling to which you have been
called, 2with all humility and gentleness, with patience,
bearing with one another in love, 3making every effort
to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
Although string quartets emerged well over a millennia and a half after Paul (or a follower) wrote to the Christians at Ephesus, the unity he espoused is an absolute requirement if the four musicians are to produce great music.
In director Yaron Zilberman’s fine film the New York-based chamber quartet the Fugue has played together for over 25 years in near-perfect unity. But then comes the day when Peter Mitchell (Christopher Walken), the group’s cello player, has to reveal to his colleagues that he has entered the early stage of Parkinson’s disease.
After getting over their shock, the saddened members succumb to acts that disrupt their unity, perhaps destroying the group regardless of the talent of a potential replacement. Not only does second violinist Robert Gelbart’s (Philip Seymour Hoffman) long suppressed ambition to take over, or at least share, the role of lead violinist Daniel Lerner (Mark Ivanir), upset the others—even his wife viola player Juliette (Catherine Keener) tells him he is not capable enough—but he commits adultery with a Spanish flamenco singer whom he meets in a café. Also brought to light is the younger member Daniel’s love affair with the talented violin student Alexandra, Robert and Juliette’s daughter.
The script is melodramatic and could easily have spoiled the film, but the actors are so convincing, and the music so beautifully played—mainly the difficult piece that Beethoven composed late in his life, the String Quartet No. 14, Opus 131—that the film is a pleasure to watch (and hear). It is fascinating to see a professional group practice, each musician working hard to obtain the unity of their individual efforts so that the resultant blend is greater than just the sum of their four instruments. I cannot recall ever being disappointed by Philip Seymour Hoffman, even in a mediocre film, and the always-delightful Christopher Walken as the oldest and wisest of the four is superb. It is so good to see him in a non-quirky role that requires all of his talents as an actor.
Although the real life the Brentano String Quartet played most of the music we hear, it is reported that all four actors learned to play short phrases on their instruments so that they would appear to be more than just running their bows back and forth. Thus, in keeping with the apostle Paul’s plea, the efforts of all concerned with this film unite to produce a unified work that moves and inspires.
1, Of the four, which character did you most identify with? Why?
2. In music, or other ensemble activities, what does it take for the individual musicians to produce a great sound? How do several of the characters threaten this in the film?
3. How is trust as important in music as in a marriage?
4. What do you think of the way that the tangled relationships are resolved? How did you feel at the end of the film after Peter’s speech?