Directed by: Dustin Hoffman
Written by: Ronald Harwood, from his play
Starring: Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins, Michael Gambon, Sheridan Smith
Length: 98 min.
The debut directorial effort from Dustin Hoffman, Quartet takes place almost entirely within and without the walls of Beecham House, a retirement home for aging musicians.
Each year, the residents hold a concert to celebrate composer Giuseppe Verdi’s birthday, marshalled by the eccentric Cedric (Michael Gambon, playing a dickish version of Dumbledore, right down to his clothing). This year, however, the stakes are higher, as Beecham is under threat of closure should they not raise the money necessary to keep it open.
The balance of power is upset when rumours of a former opera star moving into the home reach the ears of its residents. The newbie turns out to be Jean Horton (Maggie Smith), who once comprised a quartet with Cissy (Pauline Collins), Wilf (Billy Connolly), and ex-husband Reginald (Tom Courtenay). With the idea of reliving their famed collaboration on the glorious quartet from Verdi’s Rigoletto, Cissy, Wilf and Reginald set out to convince Jean to join them in a reunion performance to save Beecham.
It is unclear what motivated Hoffman to take on such a limp project, because the screenplay by Ronald Harwood – which he adapted from his play of the same name – is poor at best. The film meanders between a few promising tangents before it just, well, ends.
Such structural problems become evident early on. The film begins by establishing the premise of Beecham House needing to be saved, but this is subsequently shoved into the background, resurfacing only when the film needs anyone who isn’t Smith, Courtenay, Collins or Connolly to fill time. Most of the actors are just okay, but Collins puts in a fine performance, possibly by virtue of being the only actor with even remotely challenging material; she plays Cissy’s fading mind with a spritely sadness.
The film then suddenly revolves around Jean and Reginald’s storied past, which is only revealed to us in occasional expository conversations, meaning we spend a great deal of time watching Reginald act like a petulant teenager and Jean desperately trying to reconcile with him. It’s infuriating to watch mature adults engage in such behaviour, particularly when the film offers little reason to invest in the fallout from their failed relationship. A sudden accident halfway through the film proves a slight impetus, but even then Hoffman only prods at themes of age affecting art and artists without fully committing to them.
At the risk of spoiling a narrative arc you’ll predict from the moment it’s mentioned, everyone but Jean wants the group to reunite to perform the Rigoletto quartet, but she doesn’t until she does. Then, without any suspense whatsoever, the Beecham House issue is resolved, and, incredibly, the triumphant performance takes place offscreen. This is when I realised I was watching an elderly opera singer version of Melrose Place - the 2009 reboot version – in which Billy Connolly makes uncomfortable, vaguely offensive sexual advances towards young women for 100 minutes, only to have the character’s grossness waved away in a single piece of dialogue. Handy.
Quartet is blandly watchable, but it’s a massive disappointment considering the talent involved. Instead of a film about music, talent and ageing, this is a drab drama where old people playing instruments are edited in occasionally. What it amounts to is a 98-minute preamble to a clip of the quartet, only to cut it out 10 seconds in. And you know what’s more satisfying? You can watch opera legends Pavarotti and Joan Sutherland sing that very quartet on YouTube. There, saved you $15.