A tight-knit string ensemble begins to go slowly out of tune in “A Late Quartet,” a skillfully performed drama that treats the varieties of musical expression as an effective if unsubtle metaphor for a person’s many possible pathways through life. Centered around four outstanding performances, Yaron Zilberman’s fiction-feature debut feels like the work of a filmmaker who knows and appreciates the art form under scrutiny, laying a credible foundation for a story that lays bare the often melodramatic passions of the artistic soul. This intelligent, minor-key work should find a small, discerning audience in arthouse play.
After 25 years of faithful collaboration and celebrated musicianship, the Fugue, a New York-based chamber quartet, finds itself in danger of dissolving. On the eve of the ensemble’s 26th season, cellist Peter (Christopher Walken) quietly informs his three younger colleagues that he’s in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease and plans to retire imminently, in hopes that they’ll be able to find a swift, suitable replacement.
The impending shakeup spurs second violinist Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to suggest that he be allowed to play first chair on occasion, to the irritation of Daniel (Mark Ivanir), the quartet’s tightly wound first violinist. Caught in the middle is violist Juliette (Catherine Keener), who also happens to be Robert’s wife; their daughter, Alexandra (a vivacious Imogen Poots), is an attractive violin student who takes lessons from Daniel.
Given how tightly the personal and the professional are interwoven here, it’s no surprise that lines get crossed as a quarter-century’s worth of perceived slights and unspoken resentments rise to the surface. Learning to play music as a unit, the film suggests, is like living in community rather than in isolation — challenging but rewarding, an act of sacrifice performed in service of a richer, more harmonious experience.
Zilberman and Seth Grossman’s literate script is at times thoughtful to a fault, drawing carefully calculated parallels between personality and artistic temperament. Robert, who wants the Fugue to play more passionately and spontaneously, responds to an argument with Juliette by seeking solace in the arms of another woman. Daniel, by contrast, prizes technical rigor above all else and conducts his personal relationships in appropriately rigid fashion. Wise old Peter is the quartet’s stabilizing force, his voice as deep and true as that of the cello he can no longer play like a virtuoso.
Like so much classical music, “A Late Quartet” is a touch schematic on paper but performed with enormous feeling. The film’s occasionally soapy formulations are persuasively grounded not only by the actors, but also by Zilberman’s musical erudition — his willingness to delve into the minutiae of fingerings and string crossings, or to drop in a stray line of Schubert trivia. One of the film’s finest scenes, in which Walken’s Robert fondly reminisces about his mentorship by a famous cellist, serves no obvious narrative function, but is moving regardless.
Zilberman, who previously made the 2004 nonfiction film “Watermarks,” has a trained documentarian’s eye for authentic details. The emotional precision of the performances by Hoffman, Walken, Keener and Ivanir are duly matched by how convincing they look at their instruments; all four thesps took lessons, and became adept enough to play short phrases onscreen. John Kasarda’s elegant production design includes a wealth of old photos and videos meticulously doctored to show the four leads hanging out as a group and/or posing with their instruments, furthering the illusion of their professional-musician stature.
As expected, the soundtrack (abetted by Angelo Badalamenti’s score) is a chamber aficionado’s delight, relying somewhat excessively on works by Haydn, Bach and Strauss to smooth transitions between scenes. Assuming an especially significant role in the story is Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131, a personal favorite of the composer’s, performed here by the Brentano String Quartet.