The rarefied world of classical music is the setting and the intimate "perfect square" of a string quartet and the crucible for A Late Quartet, a melodrama of love, lust, betrayal and Beethoven. It's a quiet film of tempestuous but predictable situations and emotions, a soap opera made watchable by its illustrious cast.
Christopher Walken is Peter, the wizened cellist whose early-onset Parkinson's disease throws his ensemble, the famed Fugue String Quartet, into turmoil. Twenty-five years and 3,000 recitals into their history, things are changing, because "playing for much longer is not in the cards" for Peter.
The maneuvering starts in an instant. Peter has a replacement cellist in mind. The violist, Jules (Catherine Keener), is empathetic and concerned for Peter. But the long-fuming second violin, Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman), sees this as a chance to move up in the ranks.
"How's Mr. Perfection coping with the situation?" he asks Jules, who is not only his colleague but also his icy, remote wife.
"Mr. Perfection" is first violinist Daniel (Mark Ivanir). He earned that nickname because of his precise playing, his obsessive attention to the minutiae of the well-worn pieces of music that are their repertoire, and the fact that he makes his own bows. No one else can carve and shape the wood, get the horsehair just right.
Daniel's perfectionism is why he's the perfect teacher and judge of Jules and Robert's daughter Alex's talent. Since violinist Alex is played by the fetching, cocky and young Imogen Poots (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World), you can guess where that's headed.
Director and co-writer Yaron Zilberman, moving from documentary films to features, gives some characters warm anecdotes about Beethoven, Schubert and the cellist Pablo Casals. He serves up a civilized world where egos are kept in check by good manners and putting Beethoven (his seven-movement Opus 131 quartet is the centerpiece here) and the Fugue first, in all conversations.
"It's the Fugue, Daniel," is Peter's last wish — that the group carry on.
That civility makes the explosions — confessions, arguments, accusations — pay off. Or would, if they were anything but predictable.
It's easy to stage and set up the dynamic of a long-time association, a co-ed "band" that's been working together too long and playing the same pieces forever and perhaps swapped romantic partners on occasion (think Fleetwood Mac), but faking the violin, cello and viola isn't easy. Introducing real musicians, here and there, only throws the actors' attempts at bowing into the spotlight, where they're found wanting.
But the ensemble of actors are very much "in the pocket," as musicians say. Poots is unrecognizably confident and headstrong, Walken takes another pass at playing the human heart of the piece, and Hoffman ably plays gruff and needy. Keener, with a single, resigned, sunken shrug, lets us know Jules has discovered yet another betrayal. Wallace Shawn is spot-on in a single scene as a pianist in a piano trio.
It's a lot of tempest to pour into a single teapot, but as Robert explains, "We've shared an intense life together for 25 years."
Sadly, in A Late Quartet, that intensity too often wafts away like notes decaying at the end of a concert. That makes this a quartet whose music and impact are too muted to matter.