American acting icon Dustin Hoffman’s long-awaited directorial debut, Quartet (2012), has met with optimistic anticipation, bolstered by the impressive cast which boasts national treasure Maggie Smith, a delightfully camp Michael Gambon and a gleefully sex-crazed Billy Connolly. Set in a retirement home for the cream of the operatic and classical music world, the plot concerns the trials and tribulations of a group of egotistical octogenarian divas and prima donnas who, to raise funds to keep the home going, put on a gala concert each year celebrating the birthday of world renowned composer Giuseppe Verdi.
With the arrival of soprano par-excellence Jean Horton (Smith), the fourth member of a famous quartet, the home is sent into a frenzy. The trio of singers already at the home are particularly perturbed, especially ex-husband Reg (Tom Courtenay), who still harbours a grudge for her leaving him many years ago. Undoubtedly, this small drama set in the upper class word of operatic retirement (each character waltzing towards their own Danse Macabre), will find a ready audience in older cinemagoers.
The melancholic air of those put out to pasture is handled with a subtle grace, and there is even an attempt by Courtenay’s character to connect with the youth of today in a lecture on rap. In this moment he casually, and semi-successfully, argues that opera was once a pleasure to be relished by the common man and not an institution enjoyed solely by tarted-up toffs. Hoffman demonstrates his own passion for music by setting Quartet in a retirement home for those now past their peak. In doing so, he has given himself greater liberty to indulge in the saccharine and twee, which at its best provides cuddly comfort food to be consumed in times when the little grey cells need a rest.
Whilst it carries a pleasing note throughout, the film is hoisted by its own petard, since the climax of the film hangs on whether the four singers of yesteryear will perform. Knowing that the four leads are not renowned for their musical talent (has anyone ever heard Maggie Smith perform Verdi’s La Traviata?) the audience will be wondering how Hoffman is going to pull off the ending. In the end it is handled as best it can be, but is ultimately an unsatisfying experience.
It’s the unfolding of the four leads’ personal stories that still make this picture good entertainment. Aside from the late-in-life courtship between Smith’s temperamental Jean and Courtenay’s strong turn as the growing-old-with-grace Reg, there is a delightfully ditsy performance from Pauline Collins who ultimately steals the show. An entertaining journey with a great cast, Hoffman’s Quartet does seem to end up being all too comfortable with itself.
This review was originally published on 16 October, 2012, as part of our London Film Festival coverage.