Dustin Hoffman, as an actor, has essayed some of the most iconic and edgy roles to hit the big screen: counterculture hero Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate, Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy, the nebbish turned avenger in Straw Dogs, Lenny Bruce, Marathon Man, Carl Bernstein, among many others. But for his first film as a director, he has chosen a subject matter and milieu far, far afield from this previous work: the genteel and very, very British comedy-drama Quartet, based on a 1999 play by Ronald Harwood, who also scripted. As a first-time filmmaker at the age of 75, Hoffman turns his camera lens on characters around his own age, who are similarly dealing with life in its latter stages, staring mortality squarely in the eye, sustaining themselves with their devotion to the performing arts. The result is a film that has no desire to challenge its audience or upend any of their previously held beliefs or conceptions. It is a handsomely mounted, smoothly pleasant experience that goes down as easily as a bottle of Ensure. If that sounds like I'm damning Quartet with faint praise, I assure you that is not the case. It's a modest film with modest goals, but it hits all its marks with professional precision. It's a gentle, respectful tribute to older artists, and I think it would be rather churlish to be too hard on it.
Quartet is set at Beecham House, a home for retired musicians in the English countryside that is the sort of vast, palatial estate familiar to viewers of Upstairs, Downstairs, Downton Abbey, and any number of costume dramas and Jane Austen adaptations. The halls ring daily with the sounds of sung opera arias, Bach played on the piano, and the harmonizing of violins. Settling in for a comfortable passage into life's sunset are our principal characters, old friends and singing partners. Reginald Paget (Tom Courtenay) is a reserved sort who spends much of his time teaching music theory to young students in the area, occasioning an amusing but rather contrived discussion scene comparing opera with rap music. Wilfred "Wilf" Bond (Billy Connolly) is the home's resident dirty old man, chasing after everything in a skirt, especially Beecham House's attractive director, Dr. Lucy Cogan (Sheridan Smith). Cecily "Cissy" Robson (Pauline Collins) is a ditzy, dotty, but sweetly charming woman who, it turns out, is experiencing the early stages of dementia.
There is a touch of topicality here in that even this venerable institution hasn't escaped global economic realities; Beecham House is in danger of being closed down. To that end, the house has organized a fundraising gala concert to save the place, a celebration of Verdi's birthday. This gala is to be directed by the imperious, demanding, and witheringly acerbic Cedric Livingston (a hilariously haughty Michael Gambon), who acts like he's staging a production at the Royal Albert Hall.
Beecham House begins buzzing with the arrival of a high-profile new resident: former opera superstar Jean Horton (Maggie Smith). Sent to the home very reluctantly, she prefers to live in isolation from the other residents, listening to her old records and reliving her past glories. Jean was a former singing partner of Reginald, Wilf, and Cissy; they were famous for their rendition of the quartet from Verdi's Rigoletto; their recording of this was a big hit in classical circles.
Jean's arrival is very distressing to Reginald; Jean happens to be his ex-wife, and their marriage ended over her infidelity and her choice of pursuing a globe-trotting solo career over their relationship. Reginald has nursed a grudge over many years, and initially rebuffs Jean's attempts at rapprochement between the two. This engenders a crisis for both the quartet and Beecham House itself, hinging on whether Jean can get over her reluctance to sing again, allowing for a reunion of the famous group that will ensure big ticket sales for the gala, upon which the survival of the home depends.
In sharp contrast to the great directors Hoffman has worked with, such as Sam Peckinpah, Mike Nichols, and John Schlesinger, Hoffman shows little that is distinguished in stylistic terms. Even though everything has a nicely golden glow courtesy of cinematographer John de Borman, Hoffman adopts a manner of filmmaking so unobtrusive as to be almost anonymous. However, it becomes clear very early on that the point of all this is not to dazzle us with great cinematic technique. Quartet is, no more and no less, a delivery system for bringing together a bunch of great British actors and letting them do their thing. And that they do, impeccably, with the benefit of about a couple hundred years of acting experience between them. Billy Connolly's expert comic timing ensures that things don't get too saccharine. Maggie Smith, especially, makes a great impression, as she always does, playing the haughty diva to near perfection, but also nicely conveying the vulnerable, scared woman underneath her forbidding armor. And Smith also delivers probably the most precisely articulated utterance of "fuck you" that I've ever heard in a film.
Dustin Hoffman, by discreetly staying out of the way of the great actors and actual singing stars and musicians he has assembled, has created a quietly touching and poignant tribute to the artists he has so lovingly put on display. Make sure you stick around for the end credits, a virtual honor roll of the performing arts, highlighting the impressive past achievements of all the film's on-screen participants. While Quartet won't exactly rock your world, there are far worse ways to while away 97 minutes than to be entertained by some of the stage and screen's great thespians.
Quartet is now playing in Australia and New Zealand, and opens in the UK on January 1st and in the U.S. on January 11th.