An old folks’ movie in terms of both its characters and its intended audience, Dustin Hoffman’s first completed directorial effort (he started “Straight Time” in 1978 but was replaced by Ulu Grosbard) can be thought of as this year’s version of “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”—except that the locale is a British retirement home for elderly musicians and the emphasis is more on the humorous side, though sentimentality is hardly in short supply. “Quartet” is actually pretty thin stuff, but it’s been cannily cast for maximum effect, and Hoffman gives the actors plenty of room to do their thing, aided by Barney Pilling’s editing, which keeps the pace to a stroll.
Beecham House—named after Sir Thomas Beecham, the famously eccentric English conductor—is a lovely rural estate that’s been transformed into a domicile where over-the-hill orchestral and operatic performers can spend their golden years in relative comfort and comradeship. As the script, adapted by Ronald Harwood from his own play, begins, the emphasis is on three residents who are old pals who sang together on stage. The sparkplug is Wilf (Billy Connolly), who seizes on the excuse of a minor stroke to say whatever he likes whenever he chooses, including making semi-comic romantic advances to the home’s attractive young doctor (Sheridan Smith). Wilf’s closest friend is Reginald (Tom Courtenay), a restrained, staid fellow who enjoys holding classes to introduce opera to students more interested in hip-hop. And hovering around them both is Cissy (Pauline Coffins), a charmingly daffy lady who used to perform with them both.
Their delicate balance is abruptly altered with the arrival of Jean (Maggie Smith), a former prima donna who performed regularly with the trio but whose brief marriage to Reginald—which ended in her quick infidelity—has left him wounded and angry. A good deal of the picture is devoted to their gradual reconciliation.
But even more is given over to what might be described as a geriatric version of the old “let’s put on a show!” plot so beloved of old MGM Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney movies. An annual Beecham House fund-raising concert at which residents perform for contributors is being prepared by officious, flamboyant Cedric (Michael Gambon), and he has the bright idea of having Jean sing, along with Wilf, Reginald and Cissy, one of their old staples—the famous quartet from Verdi’s “Rigoletto.” Jean, knowing that her voice isn’t what it once was and preferring people to remember her from her recordings, refuses and it’s up to the others to cajole her into reconsidering. It will come as no surprise that everything culminates in the big night, when we watch various acts by residents that we’ve seen them practicing intermittently in their final form, all while the four principals struggle to overcome the last-minute obstacles to their big reunion.
All of this is harmless enough fluff, sparked by winning turns from Smith (as in “Downton Abbey” deliciously haughty), Courtenay (his customarily reserved, reticent self), Collins (the epitome of the dotty English spinster) and Gambon (furiously egotistical and imperious). A little of Connolly’s rambunctious verbalizing, frankly, goes a long way, and there’s an awful lot of it here, but the fault is more in the script, which overdoes the sort of slightly naughty banter that’s designed to appeal to the over-sixty crowd, than with the actor who delivers it. The supporting cast is filled with actual musicians and singers of a certain age, shall we say—the most notable of them soprano Gwyneth Jones, who in her big musical number at the benefit (from “Tosca”) shows that there’s plenty of strength left in her voice. A particularly nice touch occurs in the final credits, where color photos of them are placed beside black-and-white stills of their younger selves.
John de Borman’s elegantly lush widescreen cinematography gives the setting an autumnal glow in both interior and outdoor scenes, while Dario Marianelli’s score, incorporating scads of references to familiar classical standards, fits comfortably with the numerous snatches of pieces performed by the cast.
As for Hoffman, his direction doesn’t show any great personal stamp, but it’s obviously affectionate toward characters that—like him—are rather outsized individuals, and generous toward the actors playing them. His “Quartet” might not plumb any great depths, but it’s an engaging tribute to the tenacity of oldsters determined to retire without being retiring.