It may come as a surprise to some of the directors who’ve tangled with Dustin Hoffman to hear that Quartet is supposed to mark his first time in charge, but officially, at least, Hoffman has never taken the reins on a film before. He’s chosen for his debut (at the age of 75) a gentle light comedy-drama that seems to be made for audiences who think the trouble with Downton Abbey is that it’s just too darn modern.
The setting is Beecham House, the most genteel old age home this side of heaven. Beecham (which is based on a real British retirement home) caters very particularly to elderly performers in the fine arts, classical musicians and, in this case, singers, who spend their days reminiscing about their storied careers, tutoring courteous youngsters, and occasionally staging a benefit concert to put a bit of a shine on those rusted fingers and pipes, all under the benevolent watch of sweet Dr. Cogan (Sheridan Smith). Ronald Harwood’s script, based on his play (he’s also written the screenplays for The Dresser and The Pianist, among others), revolves around, well, a quartet (you were expecting a trio?). Three of the members are longtime Beecham residents–Reginald (Tom Courtenay), Wilf (Billy Connelly and Cissy (Pauline Collins)–and the drama of Quartet, such as it is, kicks off when the fourth member of the group, Jean (Maggie Smith) reluctantly moves in. Jean is the most successful of the group and the most imperious; also, not incidentally, she’s Reginald’s ex-wife. Will the four agree to perform again together for the first time in decades in order to crown the benefit show that’s needed to keep Beecham solvent? Will the sun rise in the east?
Plot, obviously, is not of the essence here. (The movie makes The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel seem positively Dickensian.) Quartet means only to charm, and it mostly does, thanks to the supremely skilled cast. Smith, in full high dudgeon, is a joy to watch, and Courteney matches her beautifully. Connelly and Collins are both saddled with cutesy infirmities–Wilf, after a stroke, has supposedly lost his self-control mechanism and will say any outrageous thing that occurs to him, and Cissy is at that point where constant forgetfulness has not yet become dementia–and they can seem like guest star patients on Grey’s Anatomy, but they’re still performed with great precision. Michael Gambon shows up, too, as the flouncy Beecham concert director.
Quartet is fine for what it is, but it’s the spiffiest cotton candy imaginable. Presumably Hoffman was attracted to the material because of the story it tells about performers keeping their resilience as they begin to fade, and these actors, too, remind us of their youth as we watch them. (In a lovely touch, the end credits feature photos of just about the entire cast in their glory days.) The film, though, exists in the most wispy of realities–it’s a fairy tale for senior citizens.
Hoffman has surrounded himself with strong technical colleagues, and Quartet never feels less than professional. Hoffman was clearly a fan of An Education: cinematographer John de Borman, production designer Andrew McAlpine and editor Barney Pilling all hail from that fine film, while composer Dario Marianelli has scored Atonement and Anna Karenina among others. The look and feel of Quartet is smoothly top-notch.
After all the tough-minded work of his acting career, it can’t help but feel odd that Dustin Hoffman has chosen such a polished, predictable, sentimental work for his introduction to directing. He has, however, accomplished what it seems he set out to do. Quartet is an agreeable, candy-coated way to spend a couple of hours, and if you make an event out of taking grandma to the movies once over the holidays, this is the film for you.