Dustin Hoffman didn’t exactly rush into the director’s chair, with “Quartet” being the Oscar-winning actor’s first foray behind the camera at the tender age of 75.
He’s assembled a cast of his veteran peers (including Maggie Smith, Billy Connolly and Tom Courtenay) for a total charmer of a movie, displaying a light but sure touch with both comedy and drama.
The film takes place at Beecham House, a retirement home for some of Britain’s finest classical musicians and singers. It’s far more opulent than one might expect a retirement home to be, and, as one might expect, the annual talent shows are pretty spectacular. The flamboyant and mercurial director Cedric (Michael Gambon) is trying to marshal all the players together for a benefit show to raise money to keep the home from going bankrupt.
Cissy (Pauline Collins) is a former singer who is starting to show the effects of dementia and Reggie (Tom Courtenay) is a shy singer who seems happy to be out of the limelight. Wilfred (Billy Connolly), a randy opera singer who seemingly can’t let any racy thought pass unexpressed, chases after female residents and doctors alike. Connolly is a riot in the role, giving Wilfred a twinkling appeal even as he’s propositioning a doctor while riding one of those automated chairs that glide up and down stairs.
Wilfred, Cissy and Reggie were three-quarters of a famous quartet that broke up after their fourth member got famous and struck out on a solo career of her own. That she was married to Reggie, and cheated on him, only adds to the raw feelings between the singers.
And then that fourth member, Jean (Maggie Smith) arrives to live at Beecham House. Cedric thinks the residents could raise a lot of money for that benefit show if the quartet were willing to make a historic reunion appearance. Much of the drama comes from seeing whether the members of the quartet can set aside their differences — and their fears that their talents have abandoned them in old age — for the good of everyone.
“Quartet” may not have the most original premise, digging into the same themes that “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” did last summer. But it’s in the execution that “Quartet” really shines, letting a wealth of talented British actors play off each other.
These days, Smith is best known for her acidic wit as the dowager countess on “Downton Abbey,” so it’s a delight to see her with a role that lets her do so much more. As a faded diva, she displays an affecting mix of bitterness, regret and hope.
Hoffman had one of his best roles in a long time in “Last Chance Harvey,” playing a disconsolate American in London, and “Quartet” seems to continue his Anglophile period; he has a knack for the rhythms of British comedy. Working with screenwriter Robert Harwood (who adapted his play), Hoffman hits the right tone throughout, making it sweet but not sentimental. The emotions are kept at a low simmer, as we might expect for a film about the Brits, but they are present.
The film is also very frank about its themes of mortality, and the fact that this retirement home is the last stop on the tour for these elderly musicians. When the characters take the stage for their final ovation, the audience is tempted to join in.