Grace notes abound in A Late Quartet, a small, shining gem of a movie that works its way into your heart with insinuating potency of music. The Fugue, a New York-based chamber quartet, is facing a crisis. At the start of their 26th season together, cellist Peter Mitchell (Christopher Walken) breaks the news that he has been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Proper sympathy is offered by his colleagues: First violinist Daniel Lerner (Mark Ivanir) thinks Peter should continue to play as long as he can. But second violinist Robert Gelbart (Philip Seymour Hoffman) lets slip his desire to play first chair, an ambition that appalls his violinist wife, Juliette Gelbart (Catherine Keener), who sees Peter as her mentor. When Juliette learns that Robert has cheated on her and that Daniel is screwing her and Robert's student daughter, Alexandra (Imogen Poots), tensions within the group begin to pound.
OK, it sounds like the plot of a daytime soap, and sometimes it is. But director Yaron Zilberman and co-writer Seth Grossman have tuned their film with the skill of the quartet at the heart of their story. Chamber music, which features few if any solos, requires a close partnership among its players. As the Fugue rehearses Beethoven's String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp Minor – the Opus 131, which the composer insisted must be played without a pause – we watch a dysfunctional family of artists begin to implode. We also hear music, mostly performed by the Brentano String Quartet, that seems to be heaven sent.
It's paradise to watch this quartet of actors, who learned to play short phrases on their instruments, make their own kind of music. Hoffman and Keener, who costarred in Capote, play off each other with artful intensity and pure feeling. Ivanir is the spark that ignites their conflict. And Walken shines in a subtle, nuanced display of banked fires. Approaching the cello with hands trembling, he's like a lover who's lost his assurance. The performance is heartbreaking, and a master class in the craft of acting.