Early on, Yaron Zilberman's low-key drama A Late Quartet sets up an extended metaphor about Beethoven's Opus 131. Cellist Peter (Christopher Walken) explains to his class that the unusual length of the quartet — seven movements played without pause — means that instruments will go out of tune, and musicians must adjust on the fly to remain in harmony.
Peter's own quartet has been together for 25 successful years, comprised of first violin David (Mark Ivanir), second violin Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and violist Juliette (Catherine Keener), who is married to Robert. When Peter informs his colleagues that he retiring from the quartet, relationships quickly become dissonant. Also caught up in the tangle is Alexandra (Imogene Poots), Robert and Juliette's daughter, who is being coached by David.
This part of the film is a bit soapy, as the quartet members have ill-advised romantic assignations, spar over musical roles and styles, and unleash long-simmering resentments. But the drama is salvaged by good performances, and the successful framing device which demands these professional musicians seek resolution.
It's great to see Walken turn in a sensitive, low-key portrayal, but after decades of watching him play deranged characters, you may need a moment to adjust. When the film opened with a grim-faced Walken clutching a cello, I was sure he was going to kill someone with it.