In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Dustin Hoffman remarked that he made the film Quartet his directorial debut because "I'm most attracted to stuff that's been done to death and never done correctly." Consider that a sideways glance at the many cutesy and sometimes condescending old-age-pensioner movies that make it to the movie marketplace. In telling its tale of four retired musicians, Quartet doesn't avoid all of the traps of the genre, but Hoffman does show good taste, particularly in casting.
Quartet derives from a play by Ronald Harwood, who also penned the screenplay. The setting is Beecham House, a home for retired musicians. No dreary institution, this, but rather a rambling estate, well-appointed with amenities and lush greenery, that warmly embraces its residents—all of whom daily practice their vocation. Though we're reminded of Bette Davis' crack "Aging is not for sissies," this seems like the way to do it.
Still, there is trouble in paradise. Aside from a bit of cranky bickering (mostly caused by Michael Gambon's community organizer), the residents fret about the home's dwindling funds and the necessity of a boffo success for the home's annual benefit performance. This concern coincides with the arrival of a new resident who throws everyone into a tizzy: bona fide opera diva Jean Horton (Maggie Smith). Depressed by the fading of her limelight, Jean arrives bitter and emotionally fragile—the wrong frame of mind to handle being treated as the big "get" for the benefit.
Jean's demands for special treatment are the least of her disruptions. She immediately complicates the lives of her former colleagues—irrepressible horndog Wilf (Billy Connolly) and friendly but addled Cissy (Pauline Collins)—but the shock waves of Jean's arrival especially blindside her ex-husband Reggie (Tom Courtenay, star of Harwood's The Dresser), for whom she harbors hopeful feelings of reconciliation. "I wanted a dignified senility," Reggie complains. "Fat chance now she's here." Reggie's love-hate passion for Jean constitutes much of the film's dramatic action, which eventually fixates on the problem of convincing Jean to reprise the third-act quartet from Rigoletto that she, Reggie, Wilf, and Cissy once legendarily performed together.
Clever cat that he is, Hoffman adds to already sturdy material a few smart touches, such as a well-timed classical montage for the title sequence and a subtle refusal to follow-through on the cliché of the "Camille cough" (i.e. the conspicuous symptom that guarantees a character's demise). One genre expectation remains firmly in place: the senior-citizen movie remains a showcase for elder talent, which Hoffman maximizes not only with stars but also with supporting players who, once upon a time, made theatrical, operatic and musical history (stay tuned to the credits for resumé highlights).
Connolly and Collins expertly balance loveable comic relief with dramatic weight, and Smith remains reliably resonant, but Courtenay provides the most touching turn as the character with the deepest thoughts and most tender feelings. Quartet's no classic, but with the talent involved, it's certainly catchy.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]