Nearly fifty years into a legendary acting career and only now is Dustin Hoffman embarking on his directorial debut? While it’s a little disappointing to think that we could’ve been treated to his steady direction long before now, Quartet is such a superbly acted joy that you’ll be happy it’s here at a time when movies targeting the older generation are back in fashion. But unlike last summer’s hit The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Quartet firmly stakes its ground in the land of comedy, led by an impeccable assortment of Brit thespians.
Set almost entirely at Beecham House, a retirement home for former musicians of all different stripes, the story largely centers on the soap opera theatrics of stuffy Reginald(Tom Courtenay), the charmingly forgetful Cissy(Pauline Collins), and aging lothario Wilfred(Billy Connolly), who all used to sing together in a renowned quartet. While the home has its share of big-headed egotists, including ex-Dumbledore Michael Gambon as a domineering creative director, they all take a backseat to the arrival of diva Jean Horton(Maggie Smith). Once married to Reginald, and also the fourth member of his group, their marriage fell apart quickly and bitterly, the way many who try to balance the personal with the professional often do. Her arrival not only stirs up old angers in him, but drives the entire home into a frenzy of madcap scheming that threatens to ruin the annual fundraising concert to celebrate Verdi’s birthday. The hope is to reunite the quartet for one historic final event, but Jean’s steadfast disapproval has everyone pulling their grey hairs out in worry.
Written by Ronald Harwood and based on his own stage play, the script touches upon issues of mortality without sinking into a morose funk. Characters suffer from various aches, pains, and potentially devastating illnesses, such as Cissy’s obvious Alzheimer’s, with humor effectively used to lighten the mood while remaining poignant when called upon. The film expertly explores the effect of long-held regrets on those with more painful history to look upon than a future to look forward, but at the same time revels in the fun of these aging glory hounds desperate for the adulation of the crowd one last time.
The film works best when soaking up the sights and sounds of this odd little assemblage of entertainers. Music flows constantly from each and every room, with the supporting cast made up mostly of trained musicians and stage performers, adding a layer of authenticity that Hoffman is quick to linger on, much to our enjoyment. Less success is seen when the story veers, albeit briefly and sporadically, into a labored attempt at connecting the youthful hip-hop generation with the world of opera as Reginald teaches a visiting group of teens. With literally dozens of characters drifting in and out of Beecham House, this stab at a youth movement comes off as an unnecessary diversion better suited for another movie.
The cast give wonderfully understated performances that call upon an array of expressive emotions. Smith, who played the grouch in ‘Marigold Hotel’ just a few months ago, is more multi-faceted here. Wearing a face that can barely hide a lifetime’s worth of angst and shame, she’s also unabashedly proud and protective of her legacy, which makes her worry over possibly disappointing others all the more believable. Connolly, always a gifted comedian with his deep Scottish brogue, gives the film a cheeky spark, especially opposite the much younger Sheridan Smith(last seen in Hysteria as “Molly the Lolly”), who plays the much younger Dr. Lucy Logan. She’s the recipient of many of his most brazen come-ons, such as referring to himself as “vintage wine, seasoned wood”. Collins strikes a bittersweet note as Cissy, easily the most lovable character of all but also the most afflicted. Courtney doesn’t get a lot of laugh lines but gives a wonderfully subtle turn, especially when he and Smith are together.
While the film isn’t saying anything especially new about growing old, and it likely ends in exactly the way one would expect it to, Hoffman is able to find a few surprises by focusing on the intimate character details of this close-knit group who have been through more together than any family. Quartet is a joyful film with a lot of heart, even more laughs, and characters it’s impossible not to fall in love with.