Quartet, the directorial debut from Dustin Hoffman, is likely to draw considerable comparison to John Madden’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and not merely because they both happen to star a dour Maggie Smith. Like that sleeper hit from earlier this summer, this admittedly sweet-natured film featuring the likes of Maggie Smith and Billy Connolly is not so much a movie as it is a big old party. In addition to a round-table of venerable acting talent, Quartet features a slew of bit performances from real-life legends of the British stage, pretty much giving them free reign to be the delightful, occasionally crotchety old sods they so rarely are allowed to be in Hollywood. The approach has a mixed effect on the movie, though I doubt many will care.
There is indeed a narrative in Quartet, which was penned by Ronald Harwood (based on his play). It’s nothing you’ve not seen before, though, and Hoffman generally treats plot as something of a party-pooper. Retired opera diva Jean Horton (Smith) moves in to Beecham House, a rest home where veterans of the stage, the opera, orchestra and vaudeville are allowed to spend their remaining years. Jean’s timing could not be more opportune; Beecham’s financial well-being relies heavily on a musical gala – thrown annually in honor of Verdi’s birthday – to be put on by its residents. The gala’s crotchety old director Cedric (Michael Gambon) is desperate to put on a show that will raise funds for the rest of the year. With a big name like Jean now living at Beecham, the gala now has some star power.
Of course, the aging Jean is long-retired, too unconfident in her voice’s dexterity to dare sing again. Some of her new co-residents/old collaborators – including a horn-dog named Wilf (Connolly) and the scatterbrained Cissy (Pauline Collins) – court her so that she might participate in a famous quartet, effectively reliving the good old days. But in addition to her steadfast refusal to put on a show, Jean knows she must inevitably reconcile with her ex-flame, Reggie (Tom Courtenay), who also happens to be the fourth member of the celebrated quartet. If Beecham House has any hope of seeing another year, the old band must find a way to kiss, make up and put on a great show.
So when it comes to plot and stakes, what Quartet offers is just like anything you’ve seen in practically any other “the show must go on” film that’s ever been made. In Jean, we see a starlet who foolishly mourns the years long passed. In Reggie we see a hardened man, embittered by those same years long-passed. In Cissy and Wilf we see daffy, good-hearted confidants who hoard all the movie’s best one-liners. In Michael Gambon’s Cedric we see the life Glee’s Will Schuster has to look forward to in about four or five decades. Each character is likeable, if plainly wrought, and they are played well enough by a band of lovely actors, of whom their director demands little. It is nice to see a more earnest performance from Dame Smith, though. Delightful as her bitchy turns have been in Downton, at Gosford Park and at the Marigold Hotel, I appreciate Hoffman asking her to go comparatively smaller here; more heartfelt in her approach as the regretful and resentful Jean.
Speaking of Hoffman, what can be said about his first turn in the director’s chair? Since Quartet feels like little more than a larf half the time, his similar treatment of the directing job is perhaps unsurprising. I don’t necessarily mean that as an insult of his work here – he clearly knows his way around a movie camera – but I do wish he had directed with a bit more flair, either by working more with his actors to establish chemistry (they mostly get by on their intrinsic charm) or by making the film’s dramatic workings a little less stodgy or predictable. If you cannot predict all of Quartet’s key plot points within the first twenty minutes, you’ve probably not seen enough movies.
For aficionados of the British stage, however, Quartet’s ability to reward your musical geekery will prove an absolute delight. Even the non-connoisseurs of opera might delight in the cameos of real-life music vets like Dame Gwyneth Jones or Colin Bradbury. I imagine even those ignorant of the British stage will take delight as well; Hoffman gives many of these legendary performers a chance to make beautiful music again, and they are truly glorious. Hearing these singers is actually far more entertaining than any of the film’s more conventional, more cinematic goings-on. It’s almost a shame Hoffman couldn’t contrive his movie in a way that the real-life divas might have been more prominently showcased.
Should Quartet find its way to your town, do not expect it to satisfy on a fully dramatic level; it won’t. And though I cannot fully endorse Hoffman’s movie on that level, I maintain my feelings of affection for some of what he accomplishes. Still, if you consider yourself an anglophile, a lover of opera and theater, or simply enjoy watching elderly Brits getting work not affiliated with Hogwarts faculty, the movie might be right up your ally.
Bottom Line: Dustin Hoffman’s first feature Quartet is a loving ode to the British actors and musicians of yesteryear. For many, that will be enough.