By Steve Crum
In director Dustin Hoffman’s charming musical drama (with some comedy), “Quartet,” there Maggie Smith surely is. The ensemble star of two recent films (“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” being the other) and a TV series (“Downton Abbey”), she is again playing an elderly woman of feisty spirit. As the celebrated opera diva Jean Horton, she is the driving force in this story of former opera singers and musicians who deal with their pasts and present situation while living at Beecham House, a stately senior citizen residence in the English countryside.
Before she arrives at Beecham, however, we meet an array of talented eccentrics, including the three who were her friends and fellow singers, Reginald Paget (Tom Courtenay), Wilfred Bond (Bill Connolly), and Cecily Robson (Pauline Collins). Reggie, it seems, has his own set of memories since he and Jean were once married. Their reunion via living in the same residence sparks the central conflict in “Quartet.” Both try to avoid each other, but inevitably it is not possible. After breaking up with the quartet, as well as her marriage, Jean became a solo star with ego extreme. Her egomania accompanies her to the new surroundings.
However, Jean’s snootiness does not deter old friends Wilfred and Cecily from trying to reignite their friendship with her. The reserved Reggie, no surprise, mulls about and takes long walks to avoid any confrontation with his ex. Wilfred maintains his reputation as an outspoken wit and womanizer, not that he has any attraction other than friendship with Jean. His daily rowdiness consists of flirting and sexual innuendo with the waitress and Beecham manager. Billy Connolly is perfect for the role, and really the needed comic relief for this otherwise bittersweet love story. On the other hand, Cecily is rather dowdy and suffering from bouts of dementia.
Adding to the mix are the other residents, particularly Michael Gambon’s Cedric Livingston, who sing and play instruments around the house grand piano almost constantly. A few appear to be more so English music hall performers than opera singers. This is particularly evident during the film’s last act when the annual Beecham House gala concert occurs.
That is also the crux of the subplot which begs the question: Will Jean re-team with her quartet to perform at the gala?
Based on Ronald Harwood’s play of the same name, “Quartet” explores relationships, the world of music, and the challenges of growing old. It makes for fascinating plot elements that mesh well. Harwood also penned the screenplay.
Director of Photography John de Borman (who shot Dustin Hoffman’s movie “Last Chance Harvey”), shared Hoffman’s motivation for choosing Quartet as his directorial debut. At 75, Hoffman “is so reflected in (‘Quartet’) itself,” says de Borman. “Here’s a man who was the most well-known and the best actor of his generation, and he’s very human. He has a huge sense of humor and he’s life enforcing. And those are the elements of this film. It reflects Dustin completely. This could only have been done as it is now with Dustin.”
While “Quartet” seems to be part of a double feature with “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” Maggie Smith’s other recent feature about living in a retirement home, it does lack “Exotic’s” breadth of characterizations and humor. Yet “Quartet” has its element of music, which can also be used metaphorically. After all, life is about being on the same page.
GRADE: On an A to F Scale: B