So here's the thing: I went into A Late Quartet, for whatever reason, ready to scrutinize the finger work of a bunch of actors. Maybe this stems from a weird awareness, when I was bitty, of Michael J. Fox not quite synching his singing and wanking of Johnny B Goode in Back to the Future. Now, when it comes to instruments, I don't know my butt from a golf hole, so ultimately can't say how well Hoffman, Keener, Ivanir, or Walken mimed playing their instruments. (This being Guelph, I'm sure there won't be a dearth of eyes rolling at this mimicry.) But, as Roger Ebert points out, as much as Yaron Zilberman's first feature concerns an accomplished quartet's performance of Beethoven's String Quartet No. 14, it's also a film about a quartet of artists portrayed by a quartet of actors (however deft or otherwise their finger placement may be) at the height of their talents.
Walken is the elder of this 25-year-old quartet, calm and accomplished in both character and performance. Walken's become something of a caricature of himself lately, known and imitated for his halting, syncopated delivery. Here he's reigned in that weird gallop in favor of a more quiet, thoughtful, weighty delivery. Hoffman and Keener play a married couple fractured by infidelity and further tested by Ivanir's--first fiddle to Hoffman's second--smooching around with their daughter. Hoffman's character is classic Hoffman: outwardly confident, podgily masculine, but racked by jangling insecurities. Keener, as always, brings a complicated, human mix of steely and sensitive. Ivanir, heretofore unknown to me, manages just fine to animate what unfortunately is sometimes a cardboard character.
The creation and execution of art can sometimes be too convenient a metaphor, and A Late Quartet can't help stumble in those gopher holes. It's concerned very much with the balance of momentous passion and rehearsed preparedness, in both life and performance. In a way, though, this is not so much a comment on the film, but on the subject matter. In my experience, artists and performers tend to mingle and mangle their craft and life to the point that one can and will often stand in for the other. If art is an expression of life, what is a life lived in devotion to art? This isn't a raging theme in A Late Quartet, but it's quietly there. You may miss it if you're squinting too hard for the flaws of actors acting like musicians.