A Late Quartet a love letter to classical music

Christopher Walken and Catherine Keener talk to Q about A Late Quartet, Yaron Zilberman's film about the drama inside a classical string quartet.
A Late Quartet stars Mark Avenir, Christopher Walken, Catherine Keener and Philip Seymour Hoffman. (TIFF)

A Late Quartet, Yaron Zilberman’s film about the drama inside a classical string quartet, is a rare case of film illuminating the world of high art.

It begins with Peter Mitchell, a master cellist played by Christopher Walken, announcing he must retire because he has been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. The announcement is a catalyst to bring out rivalries and long-held resentments among his colleagues, including Catherine Keener and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

For Walken, whose signature roles include The Dead Zone and Pulp Fiction, it was also a chance to play a dramatic role with no hint of evil.

"I don’t get to play people, often. I get to play a lot of monsters. It’s nice to play a person and you know, a talented and successful person," he said Tuesday in an interview with CBC’s Q cultural affairs show.

Walken, 69, says he’s starting to come to terms with being the senior actor on the set, and the roles are changing as he racks up the years, with more opportunities to play a father or uncle.

One of the challenges of A Late Quartet was simulating playing the cello, when he had never played an instrument before, he told Q host Jian Ghomeshi.

Israeli-born, U.S.-based Zilberman is "passionate about music," Walken said, and at one point introduced the cast to a renowned classical string quartet so they could discuss the lives of classical musicians.

Keener told Q she could relate to her character’s need to devote herself to a music career, sometimes at the expense of personal life.

"I can relate to it because it’s very demanding to want to lead a creative life, but it’s a tradeoff," she said.

A Late Quartet is a love letter to classical music and Keener said that kind of screen treatment is vitally needed at a time when high arts organizations are struggling financially.

"I think it’s massively important because if people are engaged, they’ll ask for it. They’ll ask for grants from government so we can actually support the arts again," she said.