It's rare these days to see an old-fashioned, elegant chamber-piece movie about life and art — let alone one with Christopher Walken as, of all things, a steadying influence.
In Yaron Zilberman's minor but satisfying A Late Quartet, Walken gets to keep his electric hair and preternatural calm. Otherwise, though, the actor flexes decidedly unmenacing new muscles as Peter, the recently widowed elder statesman of a highly regarded New York string quartet that has played together in apparent harmony for 25 years. A diagnosis of early Parkinson's disease (his unflappable physician is played by Madhur Jaffrey, queen of Indian cuisine) moves Peter to announce his imminent retirement, and the chips start falling all over.
The winter of upper Manhattan discontent that follows, gracefully shot under heavy snow by veteran cinematographer Fred Elmes, works the well-trod movie terrain of a work-family whose fragile balance is thrown off by infidelity, insecurity and personal and professional jealousy — to say nothing of the shenanigans of a nominally grown-up daughter still dining out on what she sees as her folks' deficit parenting. Or, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot, who gets a topic quote in the opening scene, the nasty past creeps into the present and threatens the bright future.
A Late Quartet keeps high-culture company with Eliot, with cellist Pablo Casals and with Beethoven, whose Opus 131, along with a discreetly plaintive score by Angelo Badalamenti, ushers the group through seven movements of crisis. A seasoned indie cast keeps things moving smoothly, with Philip Seymour Hoffman as the hotheaded second violinist who suddenly announces that he's had it with playing second fiddle to the perfectionist soloist (Russian-Israeli actor Mark Ivanir).
Catherine Keener is Hoffman's wife, until now a source of harmony in more ways than one. British actress Imogen Poots provides the only dissonant note with an overdone New York accent and a ton of sex-kitten posturing as Hoffman and Keener's talented lost soul of a daughter, who has scores to settle of which she's dangerously unaware until it's almost too late.
In truth, the dramas on display are fairly humdrum, and the ambience of hushed good taste can feel stifling. Yet Zilberman clearly loves imperfect people as much as he loves perfect music, and the movie's best moments show off his relish for, shall we say, the fullness of artistic temperament under pressure. When threatened or provoked, even — perhaps especially — sublime musicians can throw punches or scurry off for extracurricular trysts with winsome flamenco dancers or the barely-of-age offspring of close colleagues.
It falls to Peter to rein in the egos and bring the ensemble back in tune, and Walken is more suited to the task than you'd think. Whether channeling psychos or romancing John Travolta in Hairspray, the actor is by temperament an understater. Though the script sometimes lumbers him with superfluous exegesis and quote-filled anecdotes with built-in life lessons, it's Peter's wordless scenes, when his virtuoso cellist massages the fingers that no longer obey orders, or eyeballs the drop between his apartment and the street below, that speak eloquently to the way that time itself — more than lust, envy or any other of the venial sins — makes monkeys of us all.
For Zilberman — who made the remarkable 2004 documentary Watermarks, about a Viennese Jewish women's swim team that survived Hitler — only art, or any great labor performed with others, endures, and for a while, at least, makes us better than we are.