Movies allow for a minimalist acting approach where the slightest movement of a performer's eye or the briefest of hand gestures can carry a powerful emotional wallop. Yaron Zilberman casts his fiction feature debut, A Late Quartet, with peerless actors, then smartly sits back and lets them bring out the nuances of their characters.
The movie concerns the members of a successful classical string quartet who are just beginning rehearsals for the beginning of their 25th season. Cellist Peter Mitchell (Christopher Walken), the eldest member of the group by a couple of decades, discovers early in the film that he has developed Parkinson's disease, a situation that has already taken a toll on his playing to such a degree that he feels he should retire from the quartet. The first violinist, Daniel Lerner (Mark Ivanir), is a perfectionist who preplans every note he plays -- his sheet music is covered in personal notations.
However, Daniel's carefully structured lifestyle is threatened by his attraction to Alexandra Gelbart (Imogen Poots), a talented young music student who happens to be the daughter of Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Juliette (Catherine Keener) who are, respectively, the second violinist and the viola player in the group. The Gelbarts' lives are headed towards a personal crisis as Robert is drawn to another woman, a fact that stirs up long-held resentments that may end their marriage.
All of these issues come to a head in the weeks leading up to their opening-night concert, and while the script, co-written by Zilberman and Seth Grossman, approaches the characters' emotional states head-on, the actors all know how to shade the material so that the most melodramatic elements of the story don't overwhelm the delicate balance required to make the movie work.
The lead foursome is superb either alone, together, or in any combination. Walken, beautifully underplaying throughout, gives the film its soul. Peter has three lengthy monologues at different points in the movie, and he holds the screen with such grace -- even when he isn't moving -- that we hang on every word. He tells his class a tale about playing for a great musician when he himself was just starting out, and that speech ends with a life lesson that becomes all the more poignant when we consider the character's personal problems. Ivanir avoids the trap of making Daniel so rigid and controlled that he's unlikable; his passion for what he does is palpable, and it's his fear of these grand feelings that leads to his musical approach. Hoffman gets to play the broadest character of the foursome, a man unafraid of passion, but who yearns for the recognition that he feels he's missing. Keener lets us see only Juliette's strengths early on so that, as her difficult relationship with her daughter develops, we're crushed when the cracks in that emotional wall begin to widen.
The actors share a chemistry similar to what's required between actual musicians. That makes the musical setting of the film thoroughly plausible, even when some of the plot turns melodramatic. The storylines aren't fresh; A Late Quartet won't be taken as groundbreaking drama. There's also a lazy reliance on a made-for-TV documentary about the foursome that various members watch from time-to-time that fills us in on back story in a way that is as inelegant as the actors are elegant.
However, these lapses in the screenplay can't keep the actors from doing what they do best, and the result is a movie that's as intimate and nuanced as a classical recital. This is not a symphony, full of bombast and emotional explosions, but a chamber piece where you savor the interactions between the players and enjoy familiar pieces made fresh because of the talent of the ensemble.