Take away the musical instruments and “A Late Quartet” is just a refined, highbrow soap opera but with better acting than “One Life To Live.” A sterling cast makes all the difference for material that isn’t as top-shelf. A quarter century ago, rigid violinist Daniel Lerner (Mark Ivanir) formed a New York fugue string quartet with his former professor, recently widowed cellist Peter Mitchell (Christopher Walken), and a married couple, violinists Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Juliette Gelbart (Catherine Keener). They have not only played music together in front of worldwide audiences but have become a close-knit group of friends. Being the senior member of the quartet, Peter comes to accept that he’s showing early-stage symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. When the rest of them learn of this news, Juliette is devastated, while Daniel and Robert’s egos come out as they must decide on a new cellist. Will Peter retire or continue to play in the arrangement for as long as he can?
That’s about it for plot, unless one counts the melodramatic marital spats, musician tiffs, mother-daughter face-slapping, and affairs that mark time until Peter makes his decision to play or not. The subplot with the Gelbarts’ college-aged daughter, Alexandra (Imogen Poots), being given extra lessons by Daniel and then becoming romantically involved with him seems especially contrived. There doesn’t seem to be much motivation there; they’re just . . . “in love.” Fortunately, director Yaron Zilberman, who co-wrote with Seth Grossman and makes his fictional feature debut, still provides his actors with plenty of ground to score some emotional weight. They make it all more involving than it should be.
Cast against-type and departing from his zany, tic-ridden persona, Walken is affecting and understated. His Peter has already lost his beloved opera-singer wife Miriam (Anne Sofie von Otter) and must now deal with his own dire health. In a later scene at the quartet’s practice, where problems come to the surface and a few of them are playing catch-up, Walken doesn’t let everything boil over into overheated theatrics. Hoffman, Keener, and Ivanir elevate the soapy material and haughty characters with the best of them. Everyone gets a “moment,” and they all fake the playing of their instruments seamlessly well (the music was dubbed by the Brentano String Quartet). Their 25th anniversary performance in the Metropolitan Museum concert hall might be their last with Peter, but it’s a lovely, satisfying moment without being undercut by manipulative musical cues or succumbing to bathos. Even Poots terrifically holds her own as Alex, who’s a talented musician in her own right but feels like she took a backseat to her parents’ violin and viola. Last but not least, hats off to cinematographer Frederick Elmes (the Hoffman and Keener-starring “Synecdoche, New York”) for making the snow-covered Manhattan its own character.
You don’t have to know Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 in C# Minor (Opus 131) from his No. 15 to get caught up in these characters’ music-driven world and their intermingled lives. But mostly, “A Late Quartet” is so marvelously acted that it’s just a pleasure to watch reliable thespians at work.
105 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B –