The seven movements of Beethoven’s Op. 131, cellist Christopher Walken tells a conservatory class at the beginning of A Late Quartet, are meant to be played as a single, uninterrupted performance, which means each instrument may, over time, drift slightly out of tune with the others, each in its own particular way. So it is with the members of Walken’s string quartet: first violinist Mark Ivanir, second violinist Philip Seymour Hoffman, and violist Catherine Keener. Twenty-five years of performing as an ensemble have made them as close as family, with all the long-buried conflicts and resentments that entails.
When Walken is diagnosed with the early stages of Parkinson’s disease, the quartet’s fragile balance is upset, reopening wounds long thought healed. Hoffman, a schlubby second chair, rediscovers the desire to take the lead, both onstage and in his marriage to Keener. Neither she nor the exacting taskmaster Ivanir take that decision well. Ivanir’s resistance and Keener’s tepid support drive Hoffman to behavior that jeopardizes his marriage and the quartet’s continued existence, but at least he has company. While Hoffman beds down with a flamenco dancer (Liraz Charhi), Ivanir takes up with Hoffman and Keener’s daughter (Imogen Poots), also a talented violinist. Meanwhile, Walken, over his fellows’ objections, tries to secure a replacement cellist for the quartet, coming to terms with his own physical decay as well as his wife’s recent death.
Yaron Zilberman’s first feature has a solid structure, but as with a piece of music, the way it’s played makes all the difference. His principal actors aren’t great at faking their instrumental prowess, but they’re perfectly in tune with each other, playing artists who’ve postponed life’s decisions in the name of pursuing their craft. None ventures too far outside their comfort zone: Hoffman has played any number of frustrated underachievers, and Keener can probably do the regretful middle-aged woman in her sleep by now. But it’s still a pleasure to watch the two of them as a long-married couple, peeling back the layers of pain and love, trying to discover what, if anything, still binds them together. Likewise, Zilberman is breaking no new ground, but he gives his actors strong material and room to breathe. When the playing is strong enough, even a few notes can be as rich as a symphony.