After decades spent in the film industry filling his repertoire with a host of classic films, Dustin Hoffman has learned a thing or two about how to make a movie. This is no where more evident than in his extraordinary directorial debut, Quartet. This film about four retired opera singers who regroup in their old age is as brilliant and lovingly composed as the operatic pieces that soar through the background. In short, it leaves longing for an encore.
The film, adapted from a play that debuted in London’s West End in 1999, opens with an overture set to La Traviata that glides through the ground of Beecham House, a beautiful English countryside manor for retired musicians full of prima donnas who may have lost their youth but not their ego. The home, short on funds, is on its way to going under unless the upcoming gala benefit concert can raise the money to save it. The audible task comes down to a former foursome famed for singing a quartet Rigoletto and has now reunited at the home, but the history of two of its members and the heartbreak associated with the song poses an emotional challenge as difficult as the vocals.
In typical Hoffman style, the film tirelessly serves up the driest of humor. Wilfred Bond (Billy Connolly), the quartet’s bass singer, is the playboy of the house who claims that he has no control over his continuous flow of sexual commentary due to a former stroke. Cissy (Pauline Collins), the alto, is a flighty sweetheart whose life theme song could be, “If I Only Had a Brain,” and Michael Gambon saunters around in robes and ringed fingers as the gala’s director whose failing short-term memory only makes him snootier. With Dustin Hoffman directing star British actors and a tale of elderly divas, it is impossible to keep even the most poker faced from cracking smiles throughout.
Beneath the flirty top layer, though, there is gravity as the regrets that come with old age begin to surface. Maggie Smith’s Jean Horton, the celebrity soprano of the group who “never took less than 12 curtain calls,” plays a solemn role, as it was her affair that ended their run as a quartet and her marriage with the tenor, tender-hearted Reginald Paget (Tom Courtenay). In fact, it was Courtenay who first saw the play in London and was so moved by Reggie’s character that he wanted to play him himself. His and Smiths’ performances bring truth to the film, as they are beset with the reflection that accompanies love lost and oncoming mortality. Having to finally face their former heartbreaks brings out the strengths and weaknesses of those around them, and fading health requires them to lean on even those they’d rather not. But fear not: their age in no way hinders their onscreen chemistry.
There’s no denying that a major advantage to this film is that old characters require old actors, and Hoffman was able to round up an all-star cast with careers as long as his behind them. But big names aside, one of the most wonderful aspects of this film is that the rest of the cast is composed of former show-biz people who have either operatic or musical theater histories to their names. Beecham House really was filled with retired musicians, and in the gala rehearsals and performances, the spirit and soul of these cast members is contagious and real. The joy they still get from performing music is tangible, and perhaps this, more than anything, is what makes the film resound so strongly.
Throughout the film, it’s clear that the actors aren’t playing roles as much as they are doing what they love and do best, and it is palpably heartfelt. After years in front of the camera, Hoffman proves adept at being behind it as well, and despite his reputation for humor, he deserves one for wisdom, too. Quartet is authentic in how it wrestles with the pains of getting old and the inevitable disappointments, but it’s equally sincere in celebrating the joy of a life well lived and refusing to let age keep what one loves from slipping away. Bravo, Hoffman!
Writer: Ronald Harwood
Starring: Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins
Release Date: Jan. 11, 2012