Making “Quartet,” a film about life in the spotlight and the drive to stay in the game, doesn’t seem like much of a stretch — or a risk — for Dustin Hoffman. With a storied career that is still lively at 75, he certainly knows the terrain.
But instead of delving into the human psyche, as he’s done so unflinchingly in too many roles to mention — though I will point to the sheer range that took him from “Midnight Cowboy’s” dying gay grifter, Ratso, to a newly single dad in “Kramer vs. Kramer”— the actor’s first turn in the director’s chair is a genteel comedy.
Not to get xenophobic about it, but “Quartet” is a quintessentially British production from this quintessentially American actor. There are no echoes of “Tootsie” in its humor, or “The Fockers,” for that matter. It’s set in a refined “Masterpiece Theatre”-styled world of aging musicians, their final days being played out in a British retirement home that has the elegant comfort of a squire’s country estate.
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Rather than fading flowers, they are a spirited bunch busy rekindling old flames and settling ancient grudges in between practicing scales. Add a mischievous rake and a diva or two and you’ve got a delightful ensemble piece that hums along nicely, but lightly.
No doubt it was “Quartet’s” heavy-on-the-acting, easy-on-the-action foundation that drew Hoffman’s attention. He has certainly stacked the deck in the casting department. Cherry-picking from the United Kingdom’s upper crust, the movie stars Maggie Smith, Billy Connolly, Tom Courtenay, Michael Gambon and Pauline Collins. You can feel the depth of their experience on screen.
The film, which Oscar-winning screenwriter Ronald Harwood adapted from his 1999 play, begins with a day in the life of Beecham House’s various eccentrics. The tightest bond is between three opera singers, who were once part of a quartet. Cissy (Collins) is a daffy delight. When she is not rushing to a forgotten meeting, she’s got music playing through her headphones.
Reginald (Courtenay) is the scholar of the group, trying to make opera relevant for rap-devoted local youths, and his interaction with the teens is one of the film’s best moments. Wilf (Connolly) is the resident rake. Young Dr. Lucy Cogan (Sheridan Smith), the on-staff medic and current object of his affection, is more amused than irritated by the hopeless flirt, his indiscretion chalked up to a mild stroke.
Harwood has said he rewrote much of the dialogue to better suit the film’s stars and it does seem a good fit — tart for Maggie Smith, salty for Connolly, effusive for Collins and melancholy for Courtenay. The narrative is tightly focused on the group dynamics under Beecham’s roof — the upstairs/downstairs of the performing arts world — and of course, affairs of the heart. Life proceeds at a leisurely pace here; a game of croquette or a garden stroll passes for action.
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Director of photography John de Borman isn’t in any hurry either, eloquently capturing the nobility of the weathered faces, arthritic hands, bent backs, unsteady gaits. “Quartet” doesn’t so much celebrate the effects of the years; rather, it unapologetically gives them their due.
In a theme that seems ever present in movies these days, Beecham House is in financial straits and facing closure. The remedy is the proverbial “let’s get the gang together and put on a show,” albeit with more panache. The gala will celebrate Verdi’s birthday with some appropriately challenging selections from “Rigoletto” and “La Traviata” in this excellent score (music supervisor Kle Savidge; Dario Marianelli, composer). The bursts of energy that accompany practices and performances are woven throughout and give the film much of its vigor. A Tosca aria by real opera great Gwyneth Jones, who plays the house’s reigning diva, is a high note.
But the house is in desperate need of a new star. Prayers are answered in the form of reluctant new resident and famed soloist Jean Horton (Maggie Smith). That she was once Reggie’s wife adds another layer of tension.
Jean’s complexities represent much of the source material for the way the film deals with the ravages of age. Worried that she won’t shine quite as iridescently as she once did, she refuses to sing. She’s forever checking the mirror, pensive when she finds the face isn’t quite what she wishes anymore.
But the real grist is regret about her career-over-marriage choice that led to her divorce with Reggie. He is still nursing those wounds, and news of her arrival puts him in a royal funk. Courtenay saturates his character with such sadness, anger and affection that he tends to steal any scene he is in.
Wilf is both the gadabout and the glue in “Quartet,” with Connolly comfortably navigating the fault lines, whether the house’s or his. Cissy’s increasing distractedness due, it is hinted, to dementia, becomes more a source of amusement than tragedy. Indeed, the conflicts and the crises never get too dicey or last for long. You wish for a bit more grandstanding — these are performers after all — although Cedric (Gambon), in flowing caftans, does his best. He’s the director of any performances at Beecham House and Hoffman has a good time bringing out his considerable ego.
“Quartet” is very much a performance piece, which plays to Hoffman’s strength — as an actor he knows when to allow this excellent ensemble breathing room and when to tighten the belt. The script has some nice turns of phrase and a lot of sentiment, but never reaches the emotional heights Harwood has in his best work, the Oscar-winning “The Pianist” topping all the rest.
At the end of the day “Quartet” is about final acts and in that it seems a film with modest aspirations — no big bang here, just a troupe of old friends trying to put on the best show they can.