This string quartet has been playing together for years, most of the adult life of three of them, and they feel they are about as good as they ever will be, but then something happens to throw a spanner in the works of their hard won perfection. The oldest member, Peter (Christopher Walken), plays the cello and teaches the instrument to his pupils at college, always ready with an anecdote to illustrate his craft and bring it alive, all the better to tutor them. But just how inspiring Peter is he never quite realised, for it was he who was keeping the quartet together, and now he has terrible news...
A Late Quartet marked itself out as an entertainment for sophisticated palates from practically the first few seconds as the main four cast members walk onstage with their instruments, bow, then are seated ready to play as if their thespian talents had just been tuned up and they were about to commence playing the audience's emotions as if they were strings. That was the idea anyway, but the manner in which the repercussions of Peter's bombshell caused ripples through the lives of the four characters wasn't quite as finely played as director Yaron Zilberman, making his fiction debut, might have hoped.
That said, if there was one thing he did get right it was his small cast who each got to demonstrate why they were hired as they strutted their stuff through the ups and downs, mostly downs, of the way their future was beginning to stretch out in front of them, a future without Peter. Early on he finds he cannot keep up with the other three as they rehearse, so feeling out of sorts he visits the doctor (Madhur Jaffrey) who tells him after an examination and some coaxing on his part that he may well be suffering the initial symptoms of Parkinson's Disease. When this is confirmed, he is made aware that he can take medication to manage the condition.
But he is also aware that he will never be able to play the cello to the high standard that he could for most of his existence, and Walken worked wonders to show that given a role where he was not required to be a psychopath or some other raving eccentric that he could be very effective indeed. This could perhaps have selected audience members lament he tended to take anything he was offered when he could have picked and chosen films which did him more justice than wheeling him on as "Rent-a-Nutter", which may be where his cult reputation was consolidated, but did him a disservice when you could see how sensitive he could be on this evidence.
His fellow actors were in his shadow, but then their roles were more contrived as they took in marital problems with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener as a couple whose marriage has noticeably cooled, due to misjudgements on both sides. Complicating that is their daughter (Imogen Poots), who is learning the violin, and now starts an affair with the other member of the quartet (Mark Ivanir) who proves to be the least likeable of the lot, coming across as an opportunist. When Hoffman's violinist wants a leading role in wherever the musicians go next after Peter has bowed out, this creates yet more ripples in the pond of their lives and they realise they were living a far more precariously balanced existence than they wished. In truth, when the camera was not on Walken A Late Quartet verged on the tiresome because you found it difficult to like the other three; add to that Poots spending most of her scenes crying and you had a flawed work worthwhile for the acting and the music (some composed by Angelo Badalamenti), if that was your thing.