Based on a play by Ronald Harwood (who also wrote this movie adaptation), Quartet sees Dustin Hoffman stepping in to the role of director for the first time (not counting the short time that he spent in the big chair on the 1978 movie Straight Time before entrusting the role to Ulu Grosbard). It may be his feature debut but that doesn’t show onscreen at all. That’s because the actor has made the very wise decision of simply filling his film with great actors.
Beecham House is a retirement home for musicians, named after Sir Thomas Beecham. Great musicians and opera singers reside within its walls but they’re, sadly, no longer performing for anyone, let alone adoring fans, with the exception of an annual gala concert that both celebrates the birthday of Verdi and also provides an opportunity to make some money that will allow the home to continue operating. Tom Courtenay, Pauline Collins and Billy Connolly play three of the residents and three good friends who used to sing together in a quartet. Maggie Smith plays the fourth member, a woman who was also married, very briefly and unhappily, to Courtenay. The movie shows the changes that occur and the feelings that quickly rise to the surface when Smith moves in to the home, allowing some people to hope that the gala concert could see one more performance from the quartet while others just clearly don’t want Smith there. Meanwhile, age keeps affecting the characters in a variety of ways, from physical ailments to disintegrating mental faculties.
Quartet is one of those enjoyable little movies that’s just full of minor delights. It’s not going to top any “best of the year” lists and I doubt it will win any awards but it’s a wonderfully gentle comedy drama that also works as a celebration of musicians and performers in a typically British, restrained fashion (just how much of a celebration, in fact, may only become clear to most viewers as the end credits roll).
The cast are uniformly excellent but, then again, audiences have come to expect no less from many of the names involved. Maggie Smith and Tom Courtenay are wonderful but viewers may find more pleasure, as I did, from seeing Billy Connolly back in good form on the acting front and Pauline Collins reminding everyone of what a talented woman she is. Connolly may not be perfect in his role, which was either fleshed out by the Big Yin himself or written (by chance or otherwise) in line with his style of cheekiness, but he mixes well with the other cast members and always offsets the pain of his old age with the twinkle in his eye. Collins gets to play a character who is almost childishly happy with her lot in life and her minor episodes may be somewhat trite but they’re never used to bludgeon the audience over the head with sentiment and emotional manipulation. Not quite. Everything stays surprisingly light from start to finish, this is not a film about people just waiting for the Grim Reaper to come and collect them. Michael Gambon is also amusing as the egotistical director of the concert while Trevor Peacock and Andrew Sachs are just two of the many great names in supporting roles. Sheridan Smith does well enough as the doctor who really does care for all of those in her charge and Eline Powell isn’t all that essential to the plot but, good grief, she is breathtakingly gorgeous. Sorry, I just felt it warranted mentioning.
The other main character is music. Great works interweave through a number of scenes and the transitions from the actual score to characters either singing of performing the same music is always smooth and nicely done.
Hoffman has a lot to be proud of here. He impresses with all of his decisions and he almost does enough to make people forget that the film is based on a play. He doesn’t quite get there, mainly because the focus is very much on the dialogue (as you would expect) and the setting of Beecham House, but he gives it his level best and I hope he tries his hand at directing again very soon.
Quartet goes on general release in UK cinemas on January 1st.
DIRECTOR: DUSTIN HOFFMAN
WRITER: RONALD HARWOOD
STARS: MAGGIE SMITH, TOM COURTENAY, BILLY CONNOLLY, PAULINE COLLINS, SHERIDAN SMITH, MICHAEL GAMBON, TREVOR PEACOCK, LUKE NEWBERRY, ANDREW SACHS
RUNTIME: 98 MINS APPROX