Based on Ronald Harwood’s 1999 play, Quartet takes place in a palatial retirement home for classical musicians, many of them opera singers. When they belt out “Happy Birthday” to one of their number in the dining room, it sounds particularly fine.
The film, which hinges on the preparation by the residents for a concert in celebration of Giuseppe Verdi’s birthday, marks the feature directorial debut of Dustin Hoffman. The completed directorial debut, that is; Hoffman started out as director of the 1978 crime drama Straight Time, in which he also starred, but left the job in favor of Ulu Grosbard, because he didn’t feel able to judge his own performance.
Hoffman doesn’t have that discomfort with Quartet, in which he doesn’t appear. And he’s had the good sense to stock the movie with the kind of cast for which the word “reliable” is an impertinent understatement. Like last year’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Quartet is one of those movies so full of peerless Brit veterans that you feel pretty sure going in that it’s going to be worth watching even if it’s not very good. Best Exotic indeed wasn’t all that good, but there were Judi Dench and Tom Wilkinson and Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton and Ronald Pickup and Maggie Smith, among others, giving it life with what appeared minimal effort.
I’m pleased to report that Quartet, though slight, is a better movie than Best Exotic, thanks in part to Hoffman’s smooth direction, in part to Harwood’s gently nipping dialogue, in part to the lovely, idyllic setting, but in by far the biggest part to the cast: Tom Courtney, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins, Michael Gambon and, once again, Maggie Smith, among others.
Smith plays a long-retired opera star who, out of financial options, comes to live at the home—played by Hedsor House in Buckinghamshire, it surely must be the most opulent old folks’ facility ever. It’s not big enough, however, for her and fellow singer Courtney, a former lover that she wronged long ago, and who hasn’t forgiven her. The two of them, along with the defiantly still-lecherous Connolly and the sweet Collins, who’s showing early signs of dementia, are asked to perform the quartet from Rigoletto at the Verdi gala. Smith alone refuses—she knows her best days as a performer are long over, and doesn’t want to betray the memory of them. The other three try to persuade her.
How it all turns out will be of no particular surprise to anyone, nor is this important—the company of these actors is such a pleasure that the mild storyline is just a formality. The point of the movie seems to be that getting old doesn’t ensure emotional maturity. True, no doubt, but as Hoffman and his four razor-sharp leads, all in their seventies, demonstrate here, it doesn’t necessarily take away talent, either.