Movie Review: Dustin Hoffman's impressive 'Quartet'

Finally, a warmly comic film for educated, cultured adults. Photo: Weinstein Co.

WASHINGTON, January 27, 2013 – For whatever reason, Quartet, a newish adult (in the best sense) comedy that marks the directorial debut of veteran cinemactor Dustin Hoffman, has opened as a slow rollout. The film began to dribble out to key outlets at the tail end of December 2012 and dribbled into a few select DC area theaters this weekend. We actually got lucky a couple of weeks ago and were invited to a gratis screening of the film that had been arranged by the Virginia Opera for its local patrons and fans—with the proviso that any review be held until this weekend. Well, it’s the weekend, and we’re here.

A bit like last year’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Quartet is a warmly comic take on a motley crew of aging adults who are not quite ready to go into that good night. Instead, they choose to rage, comically and mostly endearingly, against the dying of the light. In the case of Quartet, our primary characters, along with most of the supporting cast, are retired classical musicians and opera singers, comfortably and uncomfortably inhabiting Beecham House, a relatively posh retirement home for retired classical music performers and stars.

As one might expect, this largely elderly cast runs the behavioral gamut from the outrageous to the doddering, with most clustered tastefully in the middle of the range. That’s exemplified by the “quartet” of opera singers who soon prove to be this film’s primary focus: the irrepressible Wilfred Bond (Billy Connolly); the more intellectual and serious Reginald Paget (Tom Courtenay); and the airy spirit also known as Cecily Robson (Pauline Collins) who flits, sometimes alarmingly, in and out of current reality.

Oh, we’ve only listed a trio of opera singers. The big event, early in the film, is the arrival of mega-star soprano Jean Horton (Maggie Smith). She’s a reluctant arrival to the home, but her fellow singers and antagonists welcome her regal self with genuine warmth. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that Reginald was briefly her husband. Their breakup was not a pleasant one, and their uncomfortable, unexpected reunion is something of a geriatric double take reminiscent of Rick’s and Ilsa’s memorable reunion at Rick’s Café in Casablanca.

As various musical sideshows trot along in background (slowly), the main part of the story focuses on the initial trio’s desperate attempts to get Jean to rejoin them to sing their famous Verdi ensemble (the famous quartet from Rigoletto) as part of the home’s desperately needed annual fundraising concert. Jean’s reticence, along with the lingering, though gentlemanly bitterness of Reginald, and the occasional mental disappearances of Cecily turn the whole affair into an unexpected cliffhanger.

Clearly, this is not a film that’s intended for young men or women who, these days, generally prefer sweaty, naked bodies, mass quantities of exploding buildings or starships, or, better, both when it comes to film going. Quartet is a film that proceeds more like a quietly sleek, elegant PBS British import. Character is key, details are relevant, and all things proceed at a stately pace that might seem a touch out of place in the age of blogs, podcasts, Tweets, and instant YouTube videos.

We live in an age of impulse which is not always a good thing, as some aspects of life are better played when they’re subject to at least a modest amount of thought and deliberation—a lesson both Reginald and Jean have come to learn and one which, alas, often only comes with age.

And that’s just the point of this slow-moving but surprisingly warm older-adult problem comedy. Clothes, settings, manners and mannerisms all communicate something, and details that accrue slowly are nonetheless the details that matter, often carrying the story forward without the need for dialogue.

The real surprise here, at least for this reviewer, is that new director Dustin Hoffman gets this whole thing so right. An American, he clearly understands the British perspective of this film and rolls with it, allowing his characters to be themselves. And in so doing, he adds to the film a knowing realism that makes both characters and situations very special indeed.

But then, as if this isn’t enough, the subject matter of the vehicle is spiced up to an unusual degree by setting the scene not amidst a raucous bunch of former rock stars, but instead around a cadre of imperious yet witty and learned divas and divos from the opera world. Both terms have been appropriated by pop culture these days, but wrong-headedly.

We have met and interviewed dozens of classical musicians and opera stars over the past twenty years or so. They have ranged from the surprisingly human and humble to the eccentric, irritating, and obnoxious. But nearly all have put in a crushing amount of blood, sweat, and tears into producing genuine, recognizable excellent in art, and their frequent haughtiness and imperiousness, galling as it sometimes can be, has been well-earned as is their expectation of recognition. At the peak of their careers, most of these operatic superstars have indeed achieved a kind of genuine royalty that hereditary peers can never hope to achieve.

Both of these elements, the exceedingly human and oddly rags-to-riches upper-crust condescension, as modified by the perspective of old age, is really what makes this film tick, along with the wonderful snatches of operatic and instrumental music, of course.

The atmospherics, the music, and the heightened stage presence of this film are mightily assisted by a quartet of actors who, while creaking a bit at the joints, as will we all eventually, bring the wisdom, sensibilities, and raw feelings of a lifetime on the stage and silver screen to the pinnacle of art.

Tom Courtenay, whom we last recall seeing, sadly (for us), as the brittle, driven Strelnikov in the 1965 cinema epic, Dr. Zhivago, here plays that revolutionary’s more thoughtful opposite in his role as Reginald. Courtenay’s Reggie has never truly recovered from the shock of his sudden abandonment by Jean not long after they married.

Kind, yet principled, he’s walled this off in his psyche in order to remain a functioning human being, but the rawness of his feelings are triggered once again by Jean’s surprise arrival, and he’s forced to cope with the huge emotions that erupt—ones he thought he’d contained so long ago. It’s a marvelously mature and nuanced portrayal of what can happen to a genuinely good guy when he’s punished for his good behavior.

As his opposite, his former wife and tormenter, Jean, Maggie Smith turns in what could very well be one of her best performances in a very long career of best performances. On one hand, Smith’s Jean has lost none of her haughty edge. But, as she moves into the film’s main narrative, she seems, finally, to have been touched by the kind of genuine sorrow and regret that come as a surprise to her.

Encountering Reginald once again, she becomes almost inarticulate with regard to her true emotions. Clearly, she now recognizes that walking out on a man who genuinely loved her without pre-conditions was a major life-mistake. Is it too late to apologize, as best she can? It’s a good question, only partially resolved as the film comes to a close—but we do have hope.

Playing against Reginald and Jean, Wilfred and Cecily may seem somewhat lesser characters, but they are not. Billy Connolly’s Wilfred is still every bit the divo and never misses an opportunity to offer a scathing criticism here or a correction to the conductor or the singer there. That said, he’s loaded with wit, irony, and better yet, in old age his humor has become more self-deprecating as he comes to realize his bossiness, fussiness, and cutting edge have become rather ridiculous.

Quite his opposite is Pauline Collins’ fragile Cecily, aka Sissy. She’s charming and delightful in company, is the most genuinely compassionate and outgoing of the four, always attempting to reconcile the opposites. But she also checks in and out of reality at the most inopportune times—often at moments of psychological stress. In so doing, she approaches the tragic, yet also brings out the suppressed humanity of the other three, particularly the blustery Wilfred whose compassion toward her is as unexpected as it is genuine.

Looks like a good time to introduce the current trailer for the film:

Quartet won’t be this year’s box office miracle. It’s simple too tasteful, too elegant, too full of content that takes at least some culture, intellect, and patience to perceive. That said, it deserves more publicity than its limited rollout release seems to be garnering. For filmgoers of a certain age who’ve grown hugely tired of the current, dreary parade of juvenile, loud, and just plain vulgar movies that currently blight the cinematic landscape of a post-apocalyptic era where the F-word suffices for every part of speech and every situation, here’s a film at last that merits jumping in the car and actually going to the theater to see in first release even if you have to toss your walker into the trunk en route.

Character, setting, style, and music recall a more elegant age that we may be allowing to disappear. But the sense and sensibility of this film may be the best argument yet for updating that age and bringing it back to a century that’s sorely in need of all of the above.

Rating: **** (Four stars out of four)

Quartet. (2012) Directed by Dustin Hoffman. Play and screenplay: Ronald Harwood. Produced by the Weinstein Company. Primary Cast: Maggie Smith, Billy Connolly, Michael Gambon, Tom Courtenay, Pauline Collins. With: Sheridan Smith, Andrew Sachs.


Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington Times Communities. For Terry’s investing and political insights, visit his Communities columns, The Prudent Man and Morning Market Maven, in Business.

Follow Terry on Twitter @terryp17



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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times (1994-2009). 

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