Dustin Hoffman has tried his hand at directing in the past — he began work on the superior 70s drama Straight Time before calling in his friend Ulu Grosbard to take over — but Quartet represents his debut, at the tender age of 75. And it’s a splendid directorial debut, showcasing the quiet elegance of performances, of both the thespian and musical kind.
Adapted by the venerable Ronald Sherwood from his own play, Quartet takes place in and around a resplendent retirement home for musicians in England. Life is charming and quirky, with all unpleasantries kept off-screen, save for the occasional dramatic fall, rush of an ambulance, or memorial service for a friend. The peace and quiet is disrupted by the arrival of Jean Horton (Maggie Smith), a legendary singer who is not a happy camper about her new surroundings.
It turns out that Jean’s old beau Reginald (Tom Courtenay), a longtime resident, was not informed about Jean’s impending arrival, and still harbors tremendous resentment toward her for the breakup of their marriage. Jean, Reginald, Wilf (Billy Connelly), and Cissy (Pauline Collins) are former singers who were members of a quartet that performed a very memorable Verdi opera. The retirement home’s annual show is approaching, and in order to meet expenses, it seems that a reunion of the quartet is essential. But Jean doesn’t want to sing, Reginald doesn’t want to talk about it, and Cissy is dealing with the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease. And Wilf is around to make all the jokes.
Hoffman chose wisely. He proves himself an excellent director of screen comedy, and, working with film editor Barney Pilling, demonstrates a fine sense of comic timing, allowing space for the witty banter to flourish. The cast is filled with veteran singers and musicians, in some cases playing themselves, which adds to the authenticity.
Without drawing undue attention, the film makes the case that the past deserves to be honored and remembered. One scene, in which Reginald teaches teenage students about classical music and opera in comparison with rap and hip hop, makes the point explicitly, but otherwise the themes are happy to reside in the background. Watching old pros like Smith, Courtenay, Connelly, and Collins effortlessly embody their characters is the definition of pleasure.
It must be acknowledged that Quartet offers little that is new in the way of dramatic insight or character revelation. As director, Dustin Hoffman has elicited marvelous performances from his cast, and that, together with the warmth and wit, is as much as can be asked of any light comedy.
Quartet opens today at Angelika Dallas and Angelika Plano.