Dustin Hoffman's directorial debut is an amiable ramble through the green fields of an idyllic retirement home for British musicians. Despite its setting, "Quartet" doesn't venture into the deep waters of senescence and mortality. It's a gentle, lighthearted movie that works as a vehicle to showcase the considerable talents of its aging stars.
Life at Beecham House is centered around the upcoming concert to honor the birthday of composer Giuseppe Verdi. Musicians — string ensembles, choral groups, vaudeville acts — rehearse in every room. It's a cheerful scene punctuated by bravado, ego and a few petty rivalries. Opera singers Reginald Paget (Tom Courtenay) and Wilf Bond (Billy Connolly) rule the roost. They are a study in opposites. Reginald maintains a droll and scholarly air and engages with the local community. Wilf is a bottom-pinching anachronism, with a wry smile and an untoward proposition for every female nurse and attendant he encounters. They share in the care of their friend Cissy Robson (Pauline Collins). She is suffering from some form of senility, but her forgetfulness is played for light comedy.
Things get tense with the arrival of legendary diva Jean Horton (Maggie Smith), who has a well-earned reputation for imperious behavior. She also is notorious as Reginald's unfaithful ex-wife. At first, he wonders whether he can survive under the same roof as Jean. Before long, however, he and his friends are wondering whether they can recruit Jean to sing a quartet from "Rigoletto" in the annual show. There is increased pressure to bring her in because Beecham House is in financial straits and much of its budget comes from concert revenues.
Mr. Courtenay is wonderful as a decent man who has the misfortune of being frozen in time as a midcentury British cuckold. He trips up a bit in one condescending scene in which he compares opera to hip-hop in order to connect with a visiting group of students, but that is the fault of the script, not the actor. Dame Maggie once again shows she is the master of playing icy, desolate, inaccessible women of a certain age.
The plot breezes along without too many exertions in the direction of motive or logic. Why does Reginald absolve Jean, who has been the source of lifelong bitterness? Why is Wilf, who is relatively youthful and vibrant despite needing a cane, living at Beecham House? How does a concert that attracts a few hundred subscribers keep a retirement home on a country estate in the black? My advice is not to pay too much attention. Think of "Quartet" as a bit of light opera. There are narrative compromises necessary to collecting the characters all in the same place at the same time, so that they can all sing together.
CREDITS: Directed by Dustin Hoffman; written by Ronald Harwood
RATING: PG-13 for strong language
RUNNING TIME: 98 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS