Quartet, the directing debut of 75-year-old Dustin Hoffman, is not the film you’d expect from an actor like Hoffman. Known for his Oscar-winning performances in Rain Man and Kramer vs. Kramer, Hoffman has also played major stage roles such as Death of a Salesman’s Willie Loman on Broadway. And like Willy, Hoffman’s someone to whom attention must be paid whether he’s bristling with indignation or anxious charm. Sedate and stately are not in his highlight reel.
Yet Quartet, a light British drama set in a retirement home for musicians, is essentially Masterpiece Theatre comfort food, a chance to watch fine actors act without too many complications. Adapted by Ronald Harwood (The Dresser, The Pianist) from his own 1999 play, it features British stars and character actors born in the 1930s and 1940s – including Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Tom Courtenay, Pauline Collins and Billy Connolly. They all play close to type: Smith rolling her beautiful soft-boiled-egg eyes before delivering another acerbic zinger; Courtenay quivering with quiet suffering; Gambon pronouncing in barrel-echo tones. You have the impression Hoffman took the project so he could get the best seat in the house.
Smith, of course, dominates. She plays Jean Horton, a down-on-her-luck diva in need of hip-replacement surgery who arrives at a majestic rural pile called Beecham House. The retired musicians in residence are instantly thrown into a tizzy – suddenly there is something to talk about beyond who got marmalade at breakfast. The residents can barely concentrate on their singing practice, led by the choir master, Cedric (Gambon), a pompous old dear given to wearing caftans and fezzes.
For some of the residents, Jean’s entrance is particularly disturbing. Wilf (Connolly), a randy old Scot who complains about his enlarged prostate and makes hopeful come-ons to the pretty blond staff doctor, worries for his sensitive best friend, Reginald (Courtenay), who was once married to Jean and still carries both a grudge and a torch. Reggie had planned to live out his days in “dignified senescence” but finds himself back in emotional turmoil. Also, there’s Cissy (Pauline Collins), a generous soul battling with memory loss, which is played for both comedy and pathos.
The “quartet” in the title comprises singers (as opposed to the string players in the recent A Late Quartet). Years before, Reginald, Wilf, Cissy and Jean performed the quartet in in Verdi’s Rigoletto. Perhaps they can reunite and do it again at the Beecham House annual fundraiser, which coincides with Verdi’s birthday. If only Jean can get over her grandness and stop treating fellow residents like backstage underlings. If only Reggie can get over his broken heart and forgive his old love. If only Cissy can keep her memory straight. If only Wilf can stop peeing in the bushes. If they can’t make all that happen, Beecham House may face bankruptcy.
The latter point seems suspect every time the camera pans about the beautifully maintained gardens of the residence (played by one of England’s favourite wedding destinations, Hedsor House in Buckinghamshire). The most obvious cost-cutting option would be to scratch the gardening budget, but then it would be a drama about garden shears, not operatic tears, and we’d miss out on the rather muted let’s-put-on-a-show finale.
Throughout Quartet, Hoffman fills the background with a fascinating collection of older faces, whether they’re performing a music hall bit or as extras in a dining hall scene. Most are these faces belong to older classical musicians and stage actors, who get a roll call during the final credits, along with photographs of their younger performing selves. The adage says that life is short but art is long. Quartet’s closing credits remind us how often we recall the art, but forget about the still-living artist.