Watching Quartet, eyes are likely to be set less on the distinguished cast adorning the frame, and more on the man standing behind it. In his directorial debut, Dustin Hoffman proves himself a capable helmer, even if the subject matter proves less-than inspiring.
Wheeling out a reputable roster of old folk, Hoffman tells the tale of four ageing opera singers – Reggie (Tom Courtenay), Wilfred (Billy Connolly), Cissy (Pauline Collins) and Jean (Maggie Smith) – who reunite at a special retirement community for elderly artists. When the idea arises that the four should recreate one of their famous recordings on stage, they will have to weather the inevitabilities of old age, alongside diva-like behaviour, and some unresolved personal tensions which threaten to derail everything.
Maggie Smith is the most apparently well-cast of the bunch, wearing a sad, forlorn expression for most of her screen time that indicates a perennial sadness and nostalgia for the “good old days”, while Michael Gambon is also a top pick as the cantankerous concert director, who best cements the film’s irreverent tone. In a supporting turn, Sheridan Smith, likely still best-remembered to many for her work on BBC’s Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, should benefit from this stately addition to her resume, warmly playing the home’s medic.
Though in many ways Quartet is a by-the-numbers Brit com – and at a mere 90 minutes still feels a little padded – Ronald Harwood’s script, adapted from his own play, does a competent job of balancing a realistic engagement with notions of ageing and illness alongside affable humour that helps it bat away superficial critiques that it might be a little “stuffy”. It would be almost too easy for something like this to play as elitist and snobbish, but Harwood seems acutely aware of that fact; one scene concedes opera’s regrettable contemporary stature, and reminds us that the art used to be a casual affair, before it “had the soul taken out”.
It’s a light and fluffy film for the most part, but is arguably at its most potent when examining the oppressive potential of old age, and the ways through which people can restore meaning and worth to their lives. That it does this without becoming a dirge – largely thanks to Smith’s scathingly funny put-downs – is to be commended. Quartet is occasionally charming and well acted – especially by Maggie Smith – if memorable largely as Dustin Hoffman’s game first foray behind the camera.
Quartet is released in UK cinemas on January 4th, 2013.
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