"I'm not myself," says Peter the cellist ending the first rehearsal of the Fugue String Quartet after the death of his wife. "Maybe in a day or two I'll get my hands back."
The world touring and renowned group is in its 25th year, with 3,000 concerts under its collective belt.
The problem, tragically, is not just a passing problem with his hands or his spirit. His doctor tells him she thinks it's the onset of Parkinson's. "Wow," is his response.
What follows in Yaron Silberman's exceptional "A Late Quartet" is as fine and uncompromised a movie about classical music as you are ever likely to see – a musically sophisticated movie entirely without pandering or crude popularizing. There is never a moment in this film that rings anything but true, from the first violinist's quest for the perfect Siberian horsehair for his bow to Peter the cellist telling a master class about his earliest life encounter with the legendary Pablo Casals.
By the time it's over, it's been a complex and quite rich set of variations on life, love and work distinguished by a quartet of wonderful actors at the top of their game – Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener and Mark Ivanir.
The quartet's relationships are astonishingly intimate and intricate both in their work and in their lives. And at the same time, under so many years of so much performing closeness, each member can hear every flaw in the others. They're a microcosm of society that presumes it's at its best.
Peter the cellist raised Juliette the violist with his recently deceased wife. Juliette is married to Robert the second violinist. Their talented violinist daughter Alexandra has started sleeping with the first violinist Daniel.
Is it any wonder that the destabilizing Parkinson's of the group's oldest member – 30 years older than the first violinist who formed the quartet – implodes every bit of its stability? Second violinist Robert takes that moment to announce that he misses the passion and spontaneity of the group's earliest years and wants to start switching the first violinist's lead role with Daniel.
If life can spontaneously introduce incurable illness into the quartet, why can't Robert spontaneously introduce his long wounded ego and creative frustration?
Just as films about sports have to end with the Big Game or the Big Match, so too, obviously, does "A Late Quartet" have to end with what Peter wants to be his final concert, including Beethoven's sublime quartet Op. 131, to be played at Beethoven's direction "attacca," without pause.
But even there in this very fine chamber film about chamber music, what happens at the end is not quite what you think is going to happen. And it's all the more powerful for being that way.
It ought to go without saying that as experienced and as versatile an actor as Walken is, he seldom gets to play roles with such gentleness and intellectual authority. Keener's naturally hoarse plaintiveness and Hoffman's gift for repressed explosion are an exquisitely matched mini-duet inside the soloing and quartet interaction of the rest.
Everything fits together exquisitely, including the magnificent dark varnished cinematography of the great cinematographer Frederick Elmes.
An exceptional little film.
It should be noted that before long we'll see another film about classical musicians, the similarly titled "Quartet." That one, though, marks the film debut of Dustin Hoffman as director and stars Maggie Smith as a retired opera singer causing dissension among other retired singers.
A whole different thing, that one – clearly.
This one, though, is quite rare.
A LATE QUARTET
3 and 1/2 stars (out of 4)
Starring: Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Mark Ivanir
Director: Yaron Silberman
Running time: 106 minutes
Rating: R for language and brief nudity and sex.
The Lowdown: A string quartet has to deal with its cellist's illness and the internal chaos it reveals.