A distinguished cast of likeable veteran British actors headlines Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut, Quartet, a pleasant, life-affirming drama and a dainty observation on ageing and the importance of clinging to one’s passion in the twilight years. Ronald Harwood adapts the screenplay from his own play. Reggie (Tom Courtenay), Wilfred (Billy Connolly) and Cissy (Pauline Collins) are three retired opera singers who live together, along with a community of gifted elderly artists, at Beecham Hall (Hedsor House, Buckinghamshire). Every year, to celebrate Guiseppe Verdi’s birthday and gather funding, the house puts on a gala concert, overseen by the eccentric director Cedric (Michael Gambon). But with the unexpected arrival of Jean Horton (Maggie Smith), Reggie’s ex-wife and the fourth member of their once-famous quartet, the three try and convince her to reunite with them on stage. But, with old rivalries and unresolved personal tensions emerging, Jean is hard to convince.
Though enjoyable, Quartet is poorly paced. Even at a brisk 90 minutes, it is evidently drawn out. The first hour moves patiently but tends to meander away from any real plot, conveying the daily activities of the eccentric residents and offering snippets of Cedric turning into a curmudgeon as he stresses over the gala. Their enthusiasm is quite amusing. Connelly seems to have a great time offering up a barrage of cheeky anecdotes. A lot of them stick, but a lot of the interactions with fellow residents (almost all of whom are not actors - talented artists and musicians all the same) also feel like outtakes. It is like Hoffman filmed him wandering around making wisecracks in a conscious attempt to free the film from feeling stuffy - leaving the indoor confines to explore the house’s beautiful grounds. A montage of undisclosed time – which features a series of rehearsals but no footage of the cast actually ‘singing’ - follows to quickly bring audiences to the final curtain call.
Smith is well cast as the forlorn ex-diva repressing a lot of sadness and regret, and the film’s most emotionally involving moments emerge when we learn about Jean and Reggie’s past and the way they wrestle with their confusing emotions after all of this time. Also impressive is Pauline Collins, whose health scares concern her friends and remind audiences that aging is inevitable, as well as the importance of making the most of her time with her lifelong friends and grasping this unlikely opportunity to relive a cherished moment from her life and career.
There are some particularly nice sequences - one involving Reggie’s lecture to some teenagers who come to visit. He declares that opera used to be casual enjoyment, like rap nowadays, and regrets the fact it has become an elitist source of entertainment. One notable element about Quartet is that the characters, though they live in an environment cultivated for an elitist crowd, are really sympathetic and down-to-earth. They are just like everybody else, accepting old age, reminiscing on past glories and wondering where they went wrong with their relationships
Quartet isn't a game changer, but a light, charming affair that aims to please audiences that fell for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. The cast is appealing and likeable, and it is worth a look to see how Hoffman handles the reigns as a late-blooming director.
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22