Quartet: Hoffman’s Directorial Debut is a Delicate Narrative Laced Together with Ego and Mortality

Pauline Collins and Maggie Smith star in Quartet

Pauline Collins and Maggie Smith star in Quartet.

A delicious ensemble of some of the U.K.’s most legendary seniors turns Quartet, Dustin Hoffman’s auspicious film-directing debut, into an elegant, inspired roundelay of warmth, vitality and wry humor guaranteed to win the applause of critics and melt the hearts of the audiences that turned The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel into one of last year’s most unexpected smash hits. It’s a slight but charming riff on what happens to great performers of a certain vintage when footlights fade and obscurity threatens, played by a starry cast of still-agile headliners who have already forgotten things today’s youngsters haven’t even learned yet. The result is a movie of enormous intelligence.

The screenplay by Ronald Harwood (The Dresser), adapted from his play that remains a popular staple on the summer straw-hat circuit (I saw a memorable production a few years ago at the Berkshire Theatre Festival starring the great Kaye Ballard), is set in an elegant country manor called Beecham House, a retirement home for elderly musical luminaries whose careers have seen better days. Among the proud but well-adjusted regulars are three friends who used to be opera singers: ditzy, naïve Cissy (Pauline Collins); Wilfred (Billy Connolly), a randy, flirtatious sod who keeps the ladies giggling; and famed tenor Reggie (Tom Courtenay), who was as renowned for his Rigoletto as Julia Child was for her brioche. Their snug world crashes with the arrival of Jean Horton (Maggie Smith), once regarded as one of the most revered sopranos in the history of Covent Garden—pristine and dignified as ever, but now on the waiting list for a new hip. Jean’s superior attitude and refusal to assimilate alienates the other residents and wrecks Reggie’s comfort zone completely. Once the fourth member of the group’s famed Verdi quartet from Rigoletto, she was married to Reggie for a total of nine hours before she left him for another man. Steaming hostility comes to a rolling boil when former stage director Cedric Livingston (Michael Gambon) comes up with the idea to save Beecham House from closing down by reuniting the original Rigoletto quartet for a gala fund-raiser on Giuseppi Verdi’s birthday. The big questions: Will the aging diva capitulate and sing the quartet or not? Can Reggie rekindle his love again in the time they have left? Do they all learn the meaning of friendship, responsibility and the value of being part of a cosmic family before it’s too late? Watching it play out is enchanting.

Directing with all the right fluctuating tempos, Mr. Hoffman can’t do much to hide the fact that Quartet is a small timepiece in the ticking clock of cinema history, but he blends the activities and attitudes of the old folks’ home, chock full of withering one-liners (“I saw your Barber of Seville … it brought tears to my ears”), with the faces of a veteran cast—beautiful, expressive, brimming with life and experience. At 78, Maggie Smith wears her 60 award-winning years in show business (two Oscars, two Golden Globes, three Emmys, one SAG Award, seven BAFTA Awards, an Olivier Award and a Tony, for starters) with haughty, arrogant splendor. Brilliant comic timing leavened with a brittle, dignified snobbery that masks a marshmallow heart makes the role of Jean Horton a snug glove of a fit. It is typical of so many of the parts in the autumn of Ms. Smith’s career, which her younger Harry Potter fans have come to expect—eccentric roles that allow her to live large, make grand speeches and stop the show. In Quartet, like all of her films, she is nothing less than mesmerizing, but she’s in good company. Her three comrades are undaunted by her scene-stealing prowess. Tom Courtenay, aging nicely as her ex-husband who has wasted his life on unrequited love, is pretty terrific too. Not to mention the great Pauline Collins (Shirley Valentine) and a robust but very different turn by Scottish comedian Billy Connolly, best known on this side of the pond as the secret lover of Judi Dench’s Queen Victoria in Mrs. Brown. As their conductor, Michael Gambon, in long robes and brocaded hats, still looks like Hogwarts’s Professor Dumbledore.

In their most poignant exchange, Ms. Smith asks “Why did we have to get old?” and Mr. Courtenay says, “That’s what people do.” But few do it with such grace and dignity, in a film with so much affection, tenderness and charm.

rreed@observer.com

QUARTET

Running Time 98 minutes
Written by Ronald Harwood
Directed by Dustin Hoffman
Starring Maggie Smith,
Michael Gambon and
Billy Connolly

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