There's a provocative idea at the center of A Late Quartet, which is that a performing ensemble — here, it's a string quartet, but it's an idea with theoretically broad applications — can easily become the most important relationship in the participants' lives. This quartet is not merely a surrogate family but a sort of four-person marriage with all the complications that suggests.
The instigating crisis in the story is that the cello player, Peter (Christopher Walken), decides to retire. The other members of the world-renowned group — together now for 25 years, we're told, and still touring heavily — are all younger than he is, having begun as students when he was already teaching: first violinist Daniel (Mark Ivanir), second violinist Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and violist Juliette (Catherine Keener). Robert and Juliette are married and have a daughter Alexandra (Imogen Poots), but their relationship is under considerable strain.
Peter's announcement brings about all kinds of questions: when he should retire, who should replace him, and whether his retirement is an opportunity for Robert to challenge the creative direction taken by Daniel, the group's de facto leader.
The best parts of A Late Quartet involve the Robert-Juliette marriage, and particularly the impossibility of being your spouse's detached colleague. It's natural, after all, to want your husband or wife's unconditional support, but there's no room in the group for the subjugation of anyone's art to anything else. Good creative collaborations don't pause to avoid injuries to the ego, but good marriages often do. Hoffman and Keener have some beautiful scenes in which it's entirely unclear what's ego, what's love, what's hurt feelings, what's artistic temperament, and what's just a troubled relationship.
Unfortunately, while these basic conflicts would be enough to power the story, there are some other dynamics introduced, particularly involving Alexandra, that seem like complication for the sake of complication, just to create more for everybody to chew on. Some late scenes of conflict between Robert and Daniel have a strangely uneven tone, feeling at times like farce (the guy next to me found these scenes gut-bustingly hilarious) and at times like agonizing melodrama (I found them enormously sad), sometimes in the space of a single brief exchange.
The ending is problematic, too. The flip side to the old saying attributed to Chekhov that a gun introduced in the first act must go off in the third is that if the first introduces a gun, a dog, a carton of milk and a diamond necklace and then in the last five minutes, the gun is used, the dog saves the day, the milk is drunk and the necklace becomes a crucial piece of evidence in a criminal case, it can begin to feel like everything has been set up in the beginning only to be forced to fall into place at the end. Here, a setup that has a high probability of seeming a little corny to begin with — Peter's farewell concert — layers resolution upon resolution until there's not a member of the audience who doesn't know what's going to happen next.
Ultimately, while the performances are very good, the script could have stood a little more restraint. The marriage within the marriage could have stood on its own without quite as many figurative guns going off.
A Late Quartet opens in the U.S. in limited release on November 2.