A smartly cast, discreetly contrived melodrama about classical musicians, “A Late Quartet” unfolds in a very specific world that, spiritually speaking, is never more than a few steps from Lincoln Center. The decor of the apartments is muted, the daily rhythms refined, the blare of 21st-century popular culture nowhere to be heard. The characters here all speak with the high-minded murmur of an NPR host, even when they’re yelling.
Ironically, the main characters — members of a renowned string quartet celebrating its 25th anniversary — play music that plumbs the most tortured emotions in the history of creative expression. Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 in C- sharp minor (Op. 131) is the film’s keynote, a huge, unruly beast that bleeds with all the passions the musicians in “A Late Quartet” have tamped down in their lives. When their own explosions come, they can’t help but sound tinny in comparison.
Still, the performances are worth a look, especially since Christopher Walken so rarely gets to play a sane person. His character, Peter, is the group’s cellist and all-purpose Yoda, a master who no longer has to prove it. A generation older than the other members of the Fugue String Quartet, he’s a recent widower whose diagnosis of early Parkinson’s disease prompts his decision to retire. The delicate balance of the quartet — four people on opposite corners of a teeterboard — is immediately thrown out of whack.
David (Mark Ivanir), the Fugue’s first violinist and leader, is a dashing control freak who can’t handle the idea of change. Second violinist Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has been itching to play first violin and sees this as his main chance. Robert’s wife, Juliet (Catherine Keener), the group’s violist and soul, is torn between her fealty to her husband and to the quartet. And the couple’s college-age daughter, Alexandra (Imogen Poots), is a gifted troublemaker whose violin lessons with David have lately taken a turn for the appassionato.
With a quicker tempo, “A Late Quartet” might have been a farce, and a memorable one. Director Yaron Zilberman and his co-writer, Seth Grossman, are more interested in getting inside their characters’ heads than laughing indulgently at them from the outside. The film is shot with handsome precision and takes place in a sunlit winter Manhattan, emotions percolating like meltwater under a blanket of snow. The most touching figure is Hoffman’s Robert, a passive-aggressive nice guy who can no longer abide playing second fiddle in his career or his marriage and whose resentment toward David, the group’s alpha male, is building toward detonation. When Peter confronts Juliet during a cab ride with questions about whether David is the greater violinist, it’s the same as asking who is the better lover.
The script isn’t nearly as strong when it comes to the women. Keener excels at playing hyper-articulate characters, but she struggles with Juliet’s intuitive moods and general uncertainty, and Poots isn’t playing a young woman so much as a filmmaker’s shallow idea of one. The scene where Alexandra abruptly lays into her mother with a lifetime’s litany of complaint feels overwritten and pat, a soap opera rather than the real thing.
“A Late Quartet” is better at probing the spooky dynamics of people who play great music together for years on end. Zilberman understands these four are married to each other in a very real way, that together they approach depths of meaning that soloists and orchestras cannot. You don’t have to be a classical fan to appreciate the film’s air of inside baseball — the ease with which it navigates a hermetic world of people who understand music better than they understand themselves. At points, though, you might swear you heard Beethoven himself snorting in disbelief.