Director: Dustin Hoffman
Major players: Maggie Smith, Tom Courtney, Pauline Collins, Billy Connolly
Out of five? 3.5
This year’s London Film Festival marked, among other things, Dustin Hoffman’s first move from in front of the camera to behind it. For an actor who made his name in ground breakers like The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy and All The President’s Men, the result is not quite what you would expect.
Quartet is set in a home for retired musicians. Every year, the residents stage a concert marking Verdi’s birthday. Then a once leading opera singer takes up residence at the home, throwing preparations into confusion: not only does she still insist on behaving like a diva (despite refusing to sing), she is also the former wife of one of concert’s star performers.
It’s based on Ronald Harwood’s play of the same name and he written the film’s screenplay. Full of his innate understanding of actors and performers, just like his much-nominated The Dresser (1983), it can’t escape the fact that it was originally on the stage. With the exception of just three scenes, the entire film is set in the home or its grounds.
And it’s such a beautiful house with such glorious gardens, it’s questionable that anybody living there would ever want to leave. Which is probably the weakness at the heart of the film. If the story has aspirations to give us an insight into growing old, its location is so idyllic that it weakens the message. This is the most des retirement res – and very few of us could dream of affording it.
Nonetheless, the film does attempt to address the health issues faced by older people. Wilf (Billy Connolly) has suffered a mild stroke affecting his frontal lobe, so he lacks some social graces. Jean (Maggie Smith) is awaiting a hip operation and uses a stick. Cecily (Pauline Collins) initially appears to be a charmingly dotty older lady, but her reaction to an accident reveals there is a greater, and sadder, underlying problem. And all the residents have found that singing or playing an instrument is frustratingly harder than it used to be.
The cast is packed full of familiar, veteran, faces. I had been concerned that Maggie Smith might give us her Dowager Duchess III (I and II being in Gosford Park and Downton Abbey respectively). Thankfully, she doesn’t, although as former opera star Jean she still plays the diva and is given more than enough lines to deliver in her trademark acerbic tone. Billy Connolly’s Wilf is the showy part, the after-effects of his stroke making him a twinkly-eyed rogue with an eye (but little else) for the ladies. He has the lion’s share of the comedy lines, but also makes the most of the more telling, hard-hitting ones.
Pauline Collins is the stand-out turn, giving a delicate and tender performance as the sweet, slightly absent minded Cecily who turns out to be on the long downward slope to dementia. And Trevor Peacock and David Ryall make a delightful double act, as a pair of music hall entertainers who live in their own little musical world – and sing a Flanagan and Allan number at the Verdi concert, much to the horror and annoyance of pompous director Michael Gambon.
I can only imagine Hoffman had a ball directing such a prestigious and experienced ensemble – and that they loved being directed by an actor. He has, however, played it safe with both cast and writer and, while you sense his enjoyment in making the film, you don’t feel he’s being stretched. Instead you’re presented with a gentle, very British film, directed by an American with great affection, respect and understanding for his subject matter.
Because of its all-star British cast of a certain age, Quartet has already been labelled by some as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel II. True, it will appeal to an older audience, and one that enjoys classical music, but it does stand up in its own right. As a portrayal of aging, it is rose-tinted at times, but you are left in no doubt that all the characters know that they have less curtain calls ahead than behind them.
Quartet will be released in the UK in January 2013.
This review can be downloaded as a podcast at: http://www.cyberears.com/index.php/Show/audio/5984