Charming but toothless, Quartet is genteel light dramedy marking the directorial debut of Dustin Hoffman. “I like to see what I can get away with,” the actor, 75, recently said in an interview with the Toronto Globe and Mail. You’d never guess it from his film’s overwhelming desire to play it safe.
While it isn’t challenging, Quartet (adapted from the play by Ronald Harwood, who wrote the screenplays for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and The Pianist) is watchable thanks to an ensemble cast of stage and screen veterans and grande dames playing to type in a geriatric dream team of fine British talent.
Maggie Smith (Downton Abbey) stars as Jean Horton, a once-great opera singer fallen on hard times who arrives at Beacham House, a rural estate that serves as a retirement home for musicians. Said arrival causes something of a stir among the residents, particularly some of her former colleagues: Her ex-husband Reginald (Tom Courtenay), who is unable to either forgive or forget her infidelity. Reggie had planned to live out his twilight years in dignified senility, and resents her presence. Wilf (Billy Connolly) frets over his friend in between crass jokes, bitching about his prostate, and making passes at the comely chief of staff (Sheridan Smith); and everyone frets about the state of Cissy (Pauline Collins), a sweet lady with increasingly bad memory loss.
Years before, the four of them had performed the quartet in Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto to great acclaim; as fate would have it, Jean’s arrival coincides with the Beacham House annual gala, scheduled on Verdi’s birthday. If the four can set aside their differences, mend broken hearts, and fend off dementia long enough to perform together and save their home from a plot lifted from an episode of Josie and the Pussycats.
It’s not quite as schmaltzy and contrived as it sounds on the surface, but only barely and only because of the talent propping it up. Smith, of course, steals the show as imperious and remorseful Jean, and Courtenay cuts a dashing slow burn as her wounded lover. Connolly gets the plum role as the randy Scot; Collins is fine though saddled with a thankless role played for cheap comedy, as is Michael Gambon in a supporting performance as a pompous director.
In transferring the story to the big screen, Hoffman and Harwood seem to accept the limitations of the stage version rather than taking advantage of the opportunity to expand the story for the screen, causing several inconsistencies. Casting the Hedsor House in Buckinghamshire as Beacham House backfires — one look at the sprawling estate and it becomes clear that logical way to save the home would be to sell off a few acres and slash the landscaping budget.
They are also content to soft-pedal their tale in predictable, workmanlike fashion, coasting on trite observations about old age fading glory without much of an effort to tap the emotions roiling beneath the surface. There is a lot of heart and plenty of affection for the characters, but not much generosity for the players — which is surprising for what is essentially a valentine to veterans of the stage.