There's a moment late in Yaron Zilberman's drama "A Late Quartet" that's as beautiful an illustration of listening as you're likely to see in any movie this year.
Peter (Christopher Walken), a recent widower, is at home, playing a recording by his late opera-singer wife, Miriam (Anne Sofie von Otter). As the aria fills the quiet room, we watch Peter as he travels the notes with her, hearing every nuance, living every word. He's rapt and lost, back in a world where his beloved Miriam lived and breathed and sang for him, and it's deeply moving; Walken - and Zilberman - shows us how music can utterly transport us to another place.
When "A Late Quartet" stays with the music, it's a lovely and engrossing film; where it falters is when it wanders off with the characters into their non-music lives.
The film is the story of an acclaimed Manhattan string quartet, made up of Peter; Juliet (Catherine Keener); her husband, Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman); and Daniel (Mark Ivanir). As they approach their 25th anniversary as an ensemble, the group is shaken by the news that Peter (who's a generation older than the others) is in the early stages of Parkinson's disease.
The ripple effect from this announcement causes Robert to voice dissatisfaction with his position in the group; Robert and Juliet to confront tensions in their marriage; and Daniel to be drawn, unexpectedly, to Robert and Juliet's college-age daughter (Imogen Poots).
Relationships within the quartet become strained. Will they ever make beautiful music again?
All of this is played out fairly melodramatically, with resolutions that aren't always believable, but you stick with "A Late Quartet" for the thoughtful performances (particularly the gentle, restrained Walken) and the joy of the music.
Zilberman's especially good at capturing the electric quiet of a concert before the music begins; showing how the quartet, while playing, communicates without words; reminding us of the magic that can be created by a single string and bow.
"A Late Quartet" begins and ends with a performance of Beethoven's Opus 131 String Quartet in C-Sharp Minor. It feels like a fleeting gift to its audience, soaring above the movie as if watching over it, steering it onto the right course.
A Late Quartet
• Rated: R for language and some sexuality.
• Director: Yaron Zilberman.
• Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christopher Walken, Catherine Keener, Mark Ivanir, Imogen Poots, Anne Sofie von Otter, Madhur Jaffrey, Wallace Shawn.
• Running time: 105 minutes.