‘Quartet’ makes sweet music

Billy Connolly, Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay and Pauline Collins co-star in Dustin Hoffman's 'Quartet'
Billy Connolly, Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay and Pauline Collins co-star in Dustin Hoffman’s ‘Quartet’

I’m pretty sure we’ve seen as much of Maggie Smith as we have of Matthew McConaughey and Channing Tatum within the last year.

No, I don’t mean physically – she won’t be doing any stripteases at Highclere Castle or force-feeding anyone fried chicken in a provocative way, but between Downton Abbey, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and Quartet, audiences are either being treated to multiple turns by the grand dame or being introduced to one of the great actresses of stage and screen for the first time. Either way, it’s a treat. But for those who have seen Ms. Smith at her best – namely, playing Jean Brodie, Lettice Douffet, Judith Hearne, and Diana Nichols – Quartet, a lovely, if uncomplicated adaptation of the Ronald Harwood play, will cause viewers to wish for another vehicle that would really let the actress strut her stuff. Smith, who once also starred in James Ivory’s 1981 film, Quartet, is back, but playing a different Jean in a different Quartet altogether.

Quartet takes place at Beecham House, a gorgeous British retirement home for musical artists that still only looks like it would fit within one wing of Downton (Andrew McAlpine is the production designer). Beecham is the current home to such aging talents as the hedonistic but caring Wilf (Billy Connolly), the more conservative and sensitive Reggie (Tom Courtenay), and Cissy (Pauline Collins), a simple woman facing dementia. All of them once performed as part of a famous opera quartet, known for their rendition of Verdi’s “Rigoletto.”

Conflict, of a sort, comes in two forms: first, with the arrival of Jean Horton (Smith), a diva who was the front woman, if you will, of said quartet and who has distanced herself from the others since they stopped performing together. Their relationship has been complicated by the fact that her brief marriage to Reggie did not end well. Secondly, like everywhere else in the world, Beecham House is low on funds and threatening to close. Members of the retirement home decide to present a fundraising concert, of which a reunited quarter performance of “Rigoletto” would be the highlight. Jean, of course, declines the offer, afraid of reconnecting further with Reggie and exposing her now impoverished voice (all singing is heard but not seen).

It’s wonderful seeing these truly excellent actors together and thriving – Quartet also features Michael Gambon in a minor role – but therein lays one of the main problems with Harwood’s script. This isn’t a fair depiction of old age. These wealthy sexagenarians and septuagenarians are fit and largely healthy. Even Cissy’s memory loss is played more daffiness than a serious degenerative disorder. Information on these characters’ lives is rather slim. We have to wait to near the end of Quartet to get any elucidation of Jean and Reggie’s cloudy marriage and divorce, and it is never explained how the two managed to never see each for decades while still traveling within the small, incestuous world of opera.

Quartet should also be significant as it marks the directorial debut of 75-year-old Dustin Hoffman. It’s surprising then, that a performer known for starring in scenes of intimacy incredibly potent (The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, Marathon Man, Tootsie) creates such flat terrain. The stakes are ultimately very low, lovely as it is to see this sterling ensemble. However, Hoffman is clearly an actor’s director, allowing cinematographer John de Borman to linger on each of his actors longer and tighter than scenes require. Smith is wonderful, though she is stuck within the entitled fussiness of Jean’s confines; a repressed Courtenay, seething with hurt and wounded pride, is also fantastic. Quartet also serves as a loving tribute to many real-life musical performers, including soprano Gwyneth Jones, who get a touching shout-out in the film’s closing credits. It’s just that this movie so veddy veddy clean. It never hits the highs and lows of a real opera. Thanks to its onscreen talent, though, Quartet remains a sight to be seen, if not necessarily heard.

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