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Google “delightful” and “British film” and the search engine will likely spew results until your computer melts into a blue screen of death. But those are the best words to describe Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut, Quartet. (Well, semidebut—he was an uncredited co-director of 1978’s Straight Time.) The film, adapted by Ronald Harwood (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) from his own play, takes place at a retirement home for opera singers and classical musicians and stars Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, and Billy Connolly. Sounds delightful, doesn’t it?
Beecham House is a mansion located in a bucolic area of Buckingshamshire (real name of the residence: Hedsor House; the film was shot entirely on location), with rolling greens, tennis courts, and lakes, and the home’s interior is all gleaming wood floors and high ceilings. It’s visual Valium. The home does have some infirm residents, but they’re pushed to the margins while the sharp, witty, and still talented literally take center stage. The one exception is Cissy (charmingly yet deftly played by Pauline Collins), who seems like a bit of a cheery dingbat until you realize she may actually have a touch of dementia, along with other unspecified problems.
Cissy is one quarter of the foursome who sang a famous rendition of the Rigoletto quartet back in the day, along with the skirt-chasing Wilf (Connolly), more dignified Reginald (Tom Courtenay), and Jean (Smith), the supersecret new resident/diva who thinks the house rules don’t apply to her and refuses to take part in a reunion when asked to perform in an annual concert held in honor of Verdi’s birthday. She says she simply doesn’t sing anymore—you get the impression that she’s embarrassed about what age has done to her voice—but she also has a romantic history with Reginald, who initially can’t even stand to be in her presence.
Hoffman’s direction is unremarkable but doesn’t suffer for it; the story is amiably told, and flash seems unnecessary. One choice he made that adds to the vérité—and, yes, delightfulness—of the film was to fill out the cast with professional musicians and singers. (They are identified during the closing credits.) Besides Wilf’s come-ons to staff and residents alike and Jean and Reginald’s attempts to make amends, the most common type of scene depicts the lot practicing—with Gambon’s holier-than-thou Cedric, the director, criticizing them—and even when they’re bad, they’re good, and their output is lovely. And if the actors themselves aren’t belters? Well, Hoffman has a kind of cheap but effective enough way around that, and really it’s the only disappointing part of the film. Quartet is not an award-winner (even Smith, garnering so much attention for Downton Abbey, simply blends in, though that’s a talent in itself), but amid a cinematic season that’s packed with both the bottom of the barrel or the lofty self-serious, it’s a pleasant break.