Four sedate, super-civilized musicians are thrown into a pressure cooker in “A Late Quartet,” a drama whose measured veneer gives way to memorable and explosive moments.
There are movies that seduce major actors with the prospect of becoming an action figure, and there are others that earn world-class casts by providing scenes that remind actors why they became actors.
“A Late Quartet” is the latter kind.
There’s a scene in which Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing a man who has had a spontaneous one-night stand with a woman, is in the process of nipping the affair in the bud. Suddenly his wife (Catherine Keener) walks up to their table, and the look on his face — the look of someone trying to seem like nothing is wrong — is of such terror that you feel physically transported into the actor’s body: the heart pounding, the stomach clenching, the fast breathing, the panic.
That’s amazing acting, and it’s one of several extraordinary scenes for Hoffman, who is not the only one brilliant here. Director Yaron Zilberman, in his first narrative feature, has directed his actors to a series of staggering moments, some restrained and some bravura. Imogen Poots as a daughter who feels that her mother betrayed her in childhood, has a brief outburst of rage and grief that knocks you back in your seat and takes the air out of the room. What power coming out of that young actress.
Yet there are quieter moments just as pointed and just as effective, as when the senior member of the quartet (Christopher Walken) finds out in one of the movie’s first scenes that he probably has Parkinson’s disease. Walken lets you see it sink in and also lets you see the extent that such a thing would not sink in, not all at once. Here’s a musician whose whole livelihood, as well as his professional identity, is tied to his ability to move his fingers.
The Parkinson’s diagnosis is the catalytic event, and with that the lives of the four musicians, who are world renowned, begin to break out of confinement and become messy. Passions are let loose — the long-held resentments, the unrealized ambitions, as well as the question that always comes up among people who have done one thing very well for many years: Do I keep doing it, or would I be just as good at something new?
In many ways, “A Late Quartet” is as civilized as its characters, which is not always an advantage. It’s a movie about mature, rational people, which limits the possibilities — things can’t get too crazy, after all.
But for those willing to enter this world and pay attention, “A Late Quartet” provides distinct and uncommon satisfactions.