Film Review: Quartet

The carriage trade will line up for debut helmer Dustin Hoffman's endearing treatise on aging and music, which is far more delicate than 'The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.'

Beecham House, a posh retirement home for retired classical musicians, is in trouble. To raise funds for its continued operation, the annual benefit concert crucially rests on a performance of the great, complex final quartet from Verdi’s Rigoletto. The four singers involved are the aristocratic tenor Reginald (Tom Courtenay), addlepated Sissy (Pauline Collins), irrepressible old horndog Wilf (Billy Connolly) and haughty diva Jean (Maggie Smith). The problem is, Jean obstinately refuses to sing, a challenge exacerbated by the fact that she was once briefly married to Reginald, something neither of them ever quite got over.

Dustin Hoffman makes an elegant directorial debut with this adaptation of a 1999 Ronald Harwood play. He obviously adores the setting—as anyone would—of this Georgian mansion turned into a paradise for Verdians, and his sheer love of performers palpably glows in every frame of his beautifully shot film, giving it a charm not always present in the text. The script is nothing more than some fancy West End piffle, lacking any true depth in terms of emotional or musical insight. But it’s the kind of slightly fusty “Masterpiece Theatre” thing that the diehard Anglophile Weinstein Company loves to put forth for the carriage trade, having reaped such great success with the likes of The King’s Speech.

The actors are everything here, of course, and apart from the leads, the film is populated by an impressive array of opera, classical music and theatre veterans, whose young portraits and brief CVs are featured in a lovely end-credit sequence. Their very presence lends a warmly inviting authenticity to the proceedings. Sheridan Smith gives a smart, attractive performance as the home’s director.

It’s downright criminal how much charm the literally twinkling Connolly possesses as the superannuated satyr Wilf, so much so that you wonder why none of the endless ladies he shamelessly flirts with don’t just take him up on it. Courtenay, often through the use of merely looking intently, delivers the deepest, most emotional performance, as a man whose happy acceptance of old age is disrupted by unpleasant memories. His scene in which he instructs high-school students about opera by comparing it to their beloved rap music is somewhat forced, however, not helped by the very bad impromptu rap provided by one of the young ’uns.

Collins does what she can with a very clichéd part of an adorably loopy biddy that rather stands out like a sore thumb in this otherwise mostly sensitive handling of the aged—which does, however, require that you watch Connolly peeing in public an awful lot. Smith’s role is a walk in the park for her, one of those difficult, doughty, dragon-lady dowagers she is forever playing these days. She brings her usual, inimitable authority and magisterial timing, but doesn’t really show us anything fresh. Taking into account certain physical challenges of age, the scene in which she furiously attacks Sissy is nevertheless clumsily staged, where it should be utterly devastating.

There are a myriad of sideline delights to be found, however. A line one often hears in savvy operatic circles is spoken: “Why are there no tenors like Jon Vickers any more?” Two old codgers deliver a lovely, breezy rendition of “Are You Havin’ Any Fun?” and opera diva Dame Gwyneth Jones has a too-small but juicy role as a Russian rival to Smith’s residential eminence, which allows her to sing a still potent “Vissi d’arte” during the gala sequence.