It’s easy to see why Dustin Hoffman would choose Quartet for his directorial debut: Ronald Harwood’s script (based on his own play) is about aged performers still having relevance in a more youthful world, and the triumphs and hardships endured are all part of the process. Hoffman, now 75 years young and with two Oscars to his name, no doubt empathizes with these characters and felt compelled to tell their story.
Beecham House in England is like many other retirement homes, with one big exception: Here the residents are retired musicians and actors. Wilf (Billy Connolly) is a randy old opera singer who’s quick with a joke and pees anywhere he can. Cissy (Pauline Collins), a singer herself, is working with former theater director Cedric (Michael Gambon) to make sure the upcoming benefit concert is a success. Reg (Tom Courtenay) is a singer with a heavy heart, and the newly arrived diva Jean (Maggie Smith) is the reason for Reg’s woes. They were married years ago, she left him, and he never got over it.
Cedric wants the four once-famous singers to perform Verdi’s “Rigoletto” at the concert, which would ensure that the financially strapped house would remain open. Jean refuses, vowing she’ll never sing again, and only seems interested in Reg’s forgiveness.
Though Connolly, Collins, Courtenay, and Smith are experienced actors, they do not personally possess the talents of their opera singing characters. To wit, you never hear them even attempt to sing. This is not a musical. It’s a comedy more than anything, in fact, which also helps forgive the story’s dramatic shortcomings.
Endearing as the characters are, the story is woefully predictable. The Jean/Reg subplot has zero suspense, there are no real health issues to speak of, and the insinuation that the house will close if the concert isn’t a success is touched on but (perhaps wisely) never fully explored. And here’s an idea: If your central dramatic conflict is going to be whether Jean will relent and perform in the all-important benefit concert, don’t put a picture of her and the rest of the quartet on stage in formal attire on the poster. Just a thought.
What’s great about Quartet? It demonstrates a genuine love for the arts, and is quick to point out the importance they can have throughout a person’s life. To that end, it’s inspiring to see musicians who’ve retired from their professional careers continue to perform not because they still need the money, but because they love doing it with all their heart and soul. Watching people do what they love can crack a smile on even the most hardened cynic.
But then this script isn’t trying to win points for originality. All it desires is to be a delightful little film with enjoyable characters offering an experience that will make you smile. Mission accomplished.