Director: Dustin Hoffman
Starring: Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Pauline Collins, Billy Connolly
Quartet, the directorial debut of Dustin Hoffman, is the sort of gentle, inoffensive movie that manages to be as charming and entertaining as it is conventional. The narrative follows familiar beats and offers no surprises, but if the film is predictable, it’s at least well put together – the cinematic equivalent of comfort food. Coming from the same mold, it will probably remind many viewers of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, another recent film about British retirees that was somewhat slight, but no less entertaining for it.
Adapted by Ronald Harwood from his play of the same name, Quartet takes place at Beecham House, a home for retired musicians that is on the verge of being closed unless its annual gala can raise enough money to save it. Amongst the residents in the home are Reg Paget (Tom Courtenay), Cissy Robson (Pauline Collins), and Wilf Bond (Billy Connolly), a trio of celebrated opera singers who once collaborated with superstar Jean Horton (Maggie Smith) in Rigoletto. While Reg, Wilf and Cissy have remained friends since that time, Jean has long since drifted away, separated from them both by her ambition to rise to the top of her profession, and as a result of a particularly bad breakup with Reg – a breakup so bad that even decades later he still wants nothing to do with her.
Reg is thrown for more than a loop when Jean arrives at Beecham to become its newest resident, and though at first he refuses to speak to her, his compassion quickly gets the better of him and he decides to forgive, if not necessarily forget, the pain that Jean caused him in the past. Meanwhile, preparations for the gala are continuing and Cedric (Michael Gambon in a delightfully grumpy performance), the show’s director, begins pushing to have the quartet reunite and perform at the gala, reasoning that it may be just the thing to help push the fundraiser over the threshold to save Beecham. Reg, Wilf and Cissy are all game to reunite, but Jean is not and, in fact, is determined to never sing in public ever again, unable to cope with the idea that she’ll never be able to measure up to how she was in her prime. The other three set out to change Jean’s mind but, as the gala swiftly approaches, she remains determined to abstain from the show. Meanwhile, Cissy’s already fragile mental health continues to decline, meaning that even if Jean decides to take the stage, Cissy may be too far gone by the time of the gala.
A movie like Quartet exists primarily to show off its cast which, in a case like this, is just about the only justification a movie really needs to exist. Smith, riding high off her much lauded turns in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Downton Abbey, remains a force to be reckoned with, playing a character whose instincts towards nastiness act as a cover for an intense vulnerability and loneliness. She’s matched at every note by her three co-stars, with Connolly playing the sort bawdily witty character that only he can play, and Collins just about walking away with the show as the sweet but spacey Cissy. Courtenay has a tricky role, in that he’s essentially the straight man who has to stand back, setting up and reacting while Smith, Connolly and Collins get all the best lines, but he brings enough heart and soul to Reg that it makes even the film’s perfunctory ending seem believable.
Quartet is an absolute success on an acting level – with players of this caliber it would be hard for it to be less – but it does fall somewhat short on the story level, even laying aside the fact that the story builds up to one moment and then the film robs us of the chance to actually see it. The story unfolds in such a swift, efficient manner that its stakes seem much lower than perhaps they ought to be, and it introduces plot points that it never really develops – even the gala is used as a premise rather than an actual plot – and sort of drops scenes in and then moves right along to the next thing. The ultimate thinness of the narrative keeps Quartet from being a great movie. That being said, it’s a good movie, the kind that you can just sort of relax into and follow along the way you would a familiar walking path. It doesn’t break new ground but it doesn’t have to either; it’s perfectly comfortable being what it is and doesn’t pretend to be anything else.