As retirement homes go, the stately British manor that houses retired musicians in Dustin Hoffman’s endearing new film is a swank accommodation. The expansive grounds are well maintained. The staff is caring and friendly. The rooms are spacious, and nobody seems to share. Meanwhile music — great music, as the residents are all former performers — pours from the windows and from all over the grounds, all day long and sometimes into the evening. These people aren’t watching daytime TV; they’re practicing the cello or singing or listening to recordings of their old performances. There are occasional health emergencies, and everyone understands that they are living out the end of their lives here, but nobody is terribly sick or depressed or demented.
Into this pleasant fantasyland — and Quartet is a fantasy about old age, as opposed to the harsher reality in Michael Haneke’s Amour — an emotional whirlwind is unleashed, just in time for the celebration of Verdi’s birthday. Old friends quiet Reg (Tom Courtenay), rogueish Wilf (Billy Connelly) and sweet Cecily (Pauline Collins) are joining in the preparations for Beecham House’s annual fundraiser when the bombshell drops: Reg’s ex-wife Jean Horton (Maggie Smith) is moving in. Jean is a diva in every sense of the word — she can tell you how many curtain calls she took after any given performance — and she is not at all happy about growing old.
Reg, whose heart she broke years ago, wants nothing to do with her. But the bossy director of the show (Michael Gambon) decides the four old pals must reprise their famous quartet from the opera Rigoletto to ensure a sellout.
In his first attempt at directing since Straight Time, Hoffman makes this bauble shine by buffing out some of its sentimentality (the script is adapted by Ronald Harwood from his play). The wonderful score helps Hoffman through the transitions through the daily life at Beecham House, and many of the residents there are played by real-life opera stars (stay through the credits to see who’s whom).
But Quartet is truly an actor’s film. Smith, still riding that Downton Abbey high, is much more human as Jean than she is as the Dowager Countess; she’s a diva with regrets. Collins, too, is good as a woman slowly losing her memory but grateful for her lucid moments (her form of dementia is the slightly forgetful, sometimes addled, charming strain of the disease only found in the movies). Connelly gets the showy role as the flirtatious Wilf, who can’t resist hitting on his decades-younger, married doctor. For my money, though, Courtenay’s reserved Reg, who is trying hard to conceal his heartbreak, is the best of the bunch. I only wish the sweet, funny scene in which he compares opera to rap music at a lecture for high school students were longer, because it shows you exactly what Jean must have seen in him all those years ago.
The movie’s big question is whether Jean will consent to perform; she worries that she’s lost her talent. Reg, on the other hand, has other desires. “I wanted a dignified senility,” he says. Don’t we all?
Cast: Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connelly, Pauline Collins, Michael Gambon.
Director: Dustin Hoffman.
Screenwriter: Ronald Harwood; based on his play.
Producers: Finola Dwyer, Stewart Mackinnon.
A Weinstein Co. release. Running time: 98 minutes. Brief strong language, suggestive humor. Opens Friday Jan. 25 in Miami-Dade: Paragon Grove, South Beach; in Broward: Sunrise; in Palm Beach: Palace, Shadowood, Delray.