In recent-film pitch terms, Quartet is kind of like A Late Quartet (Christopher Walken leads a chamber group) meets The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (Brit retirees — including Quartet star Maggie Smith — in India).
The directorial debut of actor Dustin Hoffman, Quartet follows four tenants, all former opera singers, at Beecham House, a "Home for Retired Musicians." Wilf (Billy Connolly) is a bit of a lech and a dandy, spending his time flirting equally with young Dr. Cogan (Sheridan Smith) and a fellow resident, the flighty, sensual Cissy (Pauline Collins). (Wilf to Cissy: "You have the nicest tits I've ever seen in my life.")
Wilf also spars good-naturedly with the more reserved Reginald (Tom Courtenay). And they're all thrown for a loop with the arrival of the still-a-diva Jean (Smith, whose profile is up at the moment via her role in the television series Downton Abbey), a prideful former star who takes an aloof approach to her new surroundings and who has a past with Reginald. Also in the septugenarian cast is Michael Gambon as the resident eccentric.
The film's sense of class and comfort seems designed to appeal to an older, upscale audience that's among the most reliable strands of moviegoers. There's a hospital stay here, and some regrets, but this film isn't about the ravages of age. It's a light, golden-years reverie, with nice performances and chemistry among its cast but relatively low-stakes.
Hoffman makes a risky foray into Dangerous Minds/Mr. Holland's Opus territory in a scene where Reginald teaches music to a group of high-schoolers, comparing opera to hip-hop. ("Opera is, when a guy is stabbed in the back, instead of bleeding, he sings. In rap, when he's stabbed in the back, instead of bleeding, he speaks.") The scene works better than you'd expect, thanks to Courtenay's reserve, but when his character complains about the rich taking over opera, there's a disconnect between what the film says and what it seems to be showing.
It takes awhile for Quartet's "let's put on a show" plot to get rolling, with the central intrigue whether Wilf, Cissy, and Reginald can convince a reluctant Jean to join them in singing a selection from Verdi's Rigoletto as part of Beecham House's annual concert. As for me, as agreeable as the lead actors are, I would have enjoyed a detour into what happened with some of the more lively background residents, like the little ladies doing Gilbert & Sullivan or the jazz guys working up a soft-shoe routine.
Opening Friday, January 25th