One of the things I couldn’t stop thinking about while watching Dustin Hoffman’s (yeah, verily I say unto thee, that Dustin Hoffman) directorial debut Quartet, is that in England, when actors get older, they’re given showcases like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Quartet, or are made head of MI6, but in the U.S., the women either retire or go to TV and the men are stuck with vehicles like The Bucket List and Little Fockers (I’m not sure which is worse, but I guess I’d rather be working than not).
Quartet is a depressingly uplifting feel good movie about a group of senior citizens who reside at a home (well, actually a magnificent mansion) for musicians and singers (especially, but not exclusively, of the classical variety). The premise of the film, if one wants to even call it that, is that the home is having serious financial difficulties, and if they don’t raise enough money at an annual benefit, they may have to close.
The screenwriter here, Ronald Harwood, whose written some interesting scripts in the past (The Pianist, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) and some not so interesting ones (Australia), has fashioned a trifle of a film here (he wrote it as a vehicle for Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney, who both received Oscar noms for Harwood’s The Dresser, but Finney become ill and Billy Connolly took over his part). There’s nothing much to the plot. It’s almost insulting in a way. Age old conflicts that are spoken of in terms of life and death are resolved in a matter of minutes. And the central premise of the film, that of the home closing, never seriously drives the story and almost feels like an afterthought. In fact, when the benefit is held, it’s sold out, but with such a small audience, no one will ever be able to convince me that the box office sales (even at Covent Garden prices, as Michael Gambon’s Elizabeth Taylor-caftan wearing drama queen director of the show claims they can charge) would remotely cover the electric bill for one month, let alone keep the whole place going for a year.
But if Quartet is a soufflé, light and airy, that comes dangerously close to falling, it never does. The movie may be a trifle, but the acting isn’t. This is a wonderful collection of old (both literally and figuratively) pros like the aforementioned Gambon, as well as Maggie Smith, the diva (okay, type casting); Tom Courtenay (the stoic); and Connelly (the satyr). All are expert, but most delightful has to be Pauline Collins, as the hysterical and heartbreaking ditzy life force who is starting to demonstrate the symptoms of Alzheimer’s and steals every scene she’s in.
Hoffman uses all his experience as an actor to grand effect. He knows better than to get in anybody’s way and that his chief responsibility is to make sure the actors get to do what they do best—act. Based on the resulting film, it was a very wise choice.