“A Late Quartet,” as it turns out, has more than one meaning: The film’s musicians spend most of the movie grappling with Beethoven’s Opus 131, the String Quartet No. 14 in C# Minor, which was one of the composer’s “late quartets,” completed the year before his death.
But the title also refers to a foursome of players whose relationship as a performing entity could very well reach its demise at any moment. When cellist Peter (Christopher Walken) is diagnosed with Parkinson’s, he announces his intention to leave the Fugue String Quartet, which has just celebrated its 25th anniversary. The news rocks Peter’s colleagues, all of whom are decades younger, and the impending seismic shift exposes unspoken rivalries and frustrations among the rest of the group.
For second violinist Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the shake-up in the roster inspires him to demand that he take first chair on some pieces. The idea that Robert wants to be less Pip and more Gladys Knight completely rankles the quartet’s precise and arrogant first violinist, Daniel (Mark Ivanir). Robert’s wife Juliette (Catherine Keener), who plays viola, can barely process her grief over the illness of her mentor Peter before finding herself stuck between the conflicting demands of Daniel (her former lover) and Robert.
Complicating matters further is the fact that Robert and Juliette’s daughter Alexandra (Imogen Poots), a talented violinist in her own right, is currently studying under both Peter and Daniel — and possibly nurturing feelings of her own for the latter while also nursing resentment toward her globe-trotting parents for being absent during so much of her childhood.
So yes, “A Late Quartet” may ensconce itself in the elite and heady world of classical music — down to the cameos by cellist Nina Lee and mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter — but the character dynamics could easily find a home on The CW. Nonetheless, if you’re in the mood to mix highbrow trappings with some bitter arguments, infidelity and face-slapping, screenwriters Yaron Zilberman (who also directs) and Seth Grossman keep things allegro con brio throughout.
Hoffman and Keener, who are pretty much the William Powell and Myrna Loy of indie movies at this point, bring their shared screen experience to their portrayal of a married couple who seem perfectly matched but whose longstanding relationship is patched together with compromises and unspoken desires. The moment where Robert seeks Juliette’s assurance that he’s skilled enough to play first violin, and she hesitates to agree, is a powerfully devastating marital moment.
Ivanir makes his character convincing as both a cold taskmaster and a hot-blooded romantic, and Poots explodes with youthful passion and indecision, all the while rocking a deadly accurate privileged-New-Yorker accent that many of her fellow U.K. thespians would envy.
Christopher Walken manages to be as compelling here as in “Seven Psychopaths” while playing an altogether different character. Walken may have reached the point in his career where he inspires impersonators, but both of his current films remind audiences that he still has a deep well of emotion that make him more than just the sum of his trademark delivery.
“A Late Quartet” may be better suited for the back-balcony crowd who wears jeans and comfortable shoes to the symphony rather than the folks who know their Kochel listings by heart, but sometimes it’s worth sitting through forgettable music just to watch a great group of players plying their trade.