If acting no longer holds Oscar-winner Dustin Hoffman’s attention, he could switch over to directing, as evidenced by the fine Quartet, which is enjoying a limited release. Released by BBC Films, Quartet is a lovely comic drama about a retirement home for aged musicians. The residents must band together to put on a gala to ensure that the home can still operate into the next year. However, the arrival of a new resident throws the cozy existence askew. Adapted from the play by Ronald Harwood, the film boasts a superlative cast and some wonderful pieces of music, as well as, gorgeous work from award-winning cinematographer John de Borman, that all transcend the slight triteness that hovers at the edge of the drama.
The plot revolves around a select group of retired opera singers who are living out their days in tranquil dignity at the Beecham House – a retirement home for musicians. Scottish comedian Billy Connolly is Wilfred, a randy ladies’ man, who prowls the grand mansion, flirting with the nurses, the comely doctor (Sheridan Smith), and any pretty woman in the vicinity. He’s also a kind and caring man. His best friend is Reginald (Tom Courtenay), who is less extroverted than Wilfred, but is equally caring, taking time to teach opera to bussed-in high schoolers. Reginald and Wilfred are often joined by the slightly dotty, Cecily or “Cissy,” played by Pauline Collins – Cissy is a wonderful, lovely spirit, who lapses into mild dementia from time-to-time, but is freed from societal constraints and is honest at all times (sometimes to a fault). Other residents in the home include real opera singers, musical hall performers, and concert musicians. Like something out of an old Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney musical, the residents of Beecham House must pool their talents together and put on a gala to help the place out financially. The director of the gala, is a bullying, pompous egomaniac, Cedric Livingston, played with relish by Michael Gambon.
The tranquility is interrupted by the arrival of Jean Horton (Maggie Smith), a once-great diva, who has since, tumbled into retiring isolation. She and Reginald have a past, and he is very angry at her arrival; she is also at-times pitted against a potent rival Ann Langley (played by real-life opera great Gwyneth Jones). Jean’s a recalcitrant recluse who seems to have a life-time of regrets, but she slowly inches her way out of herself, and rejoins her friends, who comprised of a legendary quartet that Cedric wants to see performed for the gala – he reasons that having the great Jean Horton make a comeback could command sales that would guarantee the fiscal security of Beecham House. But the question lingers can Reginald and Jean get past their recriminations and resentments to put on a good show.
As seen by the plot summary, the stakes aren’t terribly high – and going through the film, it’s pretty well understood what’s going to happen. Still, the predictability doesn’t mar a wonderful experience watching this delightful film. It’s tricky setting a film in a retirement home, without lapsing into maudlin territory, and at times Harwood’s script veers awfully close, but is kept in check mainly by the quartet of fantastic actors that keep things peppery – Connolly a legendary comic, plays a variation on his public persona – the irreverent, cheeky eccentric, and he’s great. Courtenay does more subtle work, but it’s fantastic when he allows a wide range of emotions flash through his still-handsome face in a short-amount of time. Smith does her usual dependable work – at this point in her career, it’s hard to imagine her not excelling – her Jean is a proud, broken woman, but with her acid wit intact, and no one does acid wit like Maggie Smith. The true revelation, though, is Collins, who takes what could’ve been, frankly a pathetic character, and imbues her with a comic dignity – her Cissy may be senile at times, but she’s never stupid, nor is she awash with self-pity; and Collins’ trademark impish quality is undiminished.
Quartet could’ve been a drearily twee affair – and at times, I wish it didn’t indulge in sentiment. The sequence where Reginald is reaching out to urban high schoolers by showing the parallels between rap and opera is pretty condescending, though Courtenay does well, and Jumayn Hunter as a rapping adolescent effortlessly steals his scene with an easy charm.
One of the most interesting challenges Hoffman has to deal with is making the audience believe that Smith, Connolly, Courtenay and Collins are accomplished singers. He does so by employing 80s-style montages of the quartet rehearsing and singing, but it’s all done to a booming soundtrack of classical music. But thankfully, there are some real musical performers and despite their advance ages, many are still able to dazzle – especially Jones who gets a beautiful solo during the gala, and wows the audience with her still-powerful voice.
Judging from the success of Downton Abbey, there is an audience here in the United States for British drama, and while Quartet won’t necessarily play well on the silver screen, I can imagine it being a smashing success on PBS.