Maggie Smith stars in 'Quartet' (+video)
'Quartet,' directed by Dustin Hoffman, is poignant because of Maggie Smith's character, a famous opera star who is sent to an artists' retreat.
Dustin Hoffman, at 75, makes his directorial debut with the enjoyably quaint â€śQuartet,â€ť an English ensemble drama set in a retirement home for aging musicians. Itâ€™s not the sort of movie you can imagine him acting in, and, apparently, he agreed.
Smithâ€™s presence here is something of an insurance policy. The minute she turns up you brace yourself for her ineffable Maggie Smithness. She is playing Jean Horton, a famous opera star who has unwillingly taken up residence in Beecham House, established more than a century ago by Verdi as an artistsâ€™ retreat. There she is surrounded by divas and cohorts from her past. One of them is Reggie Paget (Courtenay), to whom she was once briefly married before bitterly splitting up. Hoping to live out a life of â€śdignified senility,â€ť Reggie is poleaxed by Jeanâ€™s reappearance and immediately wants out.
He also still loves her, but this being a veddy British enterprise, it takes him most of the movie to open up to her. Thatâ€™s OK. Withheld feelings are Courtenayâ€™s stock in trade as an actor; the more he represses, the more he expresses. Even when he finally opens the floodgates, he doesnâ€™t gush.
Itâ€™s not surprising that Hoffman would undertake such an actorcentric first film. The camerawork is serviceable, but essentially this is an unashamedly theatrical piece. It is, in fact, adapted by Ronald Harwood from his 1999 play. (Harwood won an Oscar in 2002 for â€śThe Pianistâ€ť and in 1983 adapted his play â€śThe Dresser,â€ť costarring Courtenay in one of his most memorable roles.) The actors play up their eccentricities â€“ this is a polite way of saying they ham it up â€“ but never quite go over the edge.
One of the hallmarks of this type of drama is that the characters are instantly typed: Jean is haughty and weary; Reggie is philosophically sad; Will (Connolly) is a rakish joker constantly flirting with the much younger on-staff medic (Sheridan Smith); Cissy (Pauline Collins, barely recognizable from â€śUpstairs Downstairsâ€ť), listening to music through her headphones, is amiably dotty. Cedric (Gambon), the director of musical performances at Beecham House, is mad about flowing caftans.
Beecham House has fallen on hard times and faces foreclosure, and so, to raise funds, the decision is made to stage a gala in celebration of Verdiâ€™s birthday. The local talent, with the conspicuous exception of Jean, are all on board. Belting out selections from â€śRigolettoâ€ť and â€śLa Traviataâ€ť is the best medicine, it seems, and the rehearsals are, to put it mildly, exuberant.
What gives the movie its poignancy â€“ what turns it into something more than a polite entertainment â€“ is Smithâ€™s role. Or, to be more exact, her performance, in tandem with Courtenayâ€™s. Jean is adamant against joining the gala because she canâ€™t bear not sounding her best. She often sneaks furtive looks in the mirror and listens alone to old vinyl recordings of herself.
She isnâ€™t being morose or masochistic. Itâ€™s just that her artistâ€™s pride forbids her from tainting her memories of how she sounded in her prime. What she doesnâ€™t realize, until the end, is the therapeutic essence of her art. She may not be able to hit the notes the way she used to, but who, at this point, really expects her to? The effort is all.
Movies about oldsters â€“ when they arenâ€™t condescending or musty â€“ are always welcome in an era when characters over the age of 40 are rarely showcased anymore. Itâ€™s inevitable that this film will be paired with 2011â€™s â€śThe Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,â€ť and not just because Smith is in both of them, playing vaguely similar characters. (Both even need hip replacements.)
While both films are too carefully pruned for maximum civilized uplift, in a way I prefer this approach to that of a film like, say, the overrated â€śAmour,â€ť which is supposed to be about mortality but is really about morbidity â€“ the creep of decay. The characters in â€śQuartetâ€ť may be on their way out, but they arenâ€™t giving up without a fight. Grade: B (Rated PG-13 for brief strong language and suggestive humor.)