Making “Quartet,” a film about life in the spotlight and the drive to stay in the game, doesn’t seem like much of a stretch — or a risk — for Dustin Hoffman. With a storied career that is still lively at 75, he certainly knows the terrain.
But instead of delving into the human psyche, as he’s done so unflinchingly in too many roles to mention, the actor’s first turn in the director’s chair is a genteel comedy.
Not to get xenophobic about it, but “Quartet” is a quintessentially British production from this quintessentially American actor. It’s set in a refined “Masterpiece Theatre”-styled world of aging musicians, their final days being played out in a British retirement home that has the elegant comfort of a squire’s country estate. Rather than fading flowers, they are a spirited bunch busy rekindling old flames and settling ancient grudges in between practicing scales. Add a mischievous rake and a diva or two and you have a delightful ensemble piece that hums along nicely but lightly.
No doubt it was “Quartet’s” heavy-on-the-acting, easy-on-the-action foundation that drew Hoffman’s attention. He has certainly stacked the deck in the casting department. Cherry-picking from the United Kingdom’s upper crust, the movie stars Maggie Smith, Billy Connolly, Tom Courtenay, Michael Gambon and Pauline Collins. You can feel the depth of their experience on screen.
The film, which Oscar-winning screenwriter Ronald Harwood adapted from his 1999 play, begins with a day in the life of Beecham House’s various eccentrics. The tightest bond is between three opera singers, who were once part of a quartet.
Harwood has said he rewrote much of the dialogue to better suit the film’s stars, and it does seem a good fit — tart for Maggie Smith, salty for Connolly, effusive for Collins and melancholy for Courtenay. The narrative is tightly focused on the group dynamics under Beecham’s roof — the upstairs/ downstairs of the performing-arts world — and of course, affairs of the heart. Life proceeds at a leisurely pace here; a game of croquette or a garden stroll passes for action.
Director of photography John de Borman captures the nobility of the weathered faces, arthritic hands, bent backs and unsteady gaits. “Quartet” doesn’t so much celebrate the effects of the years but unapologetically gives them their due.
In a theme that seems ever-present in movies these days, Beecham House is in financial straits and facing closure. The remedy is the proverbial “let’s get the gang together and put on a show,” albeit with more panache. The gala will celebrate Verdi’s birthday with some appropriately challenging selections from “Rigoletto” and “La Traviata” in this excellent score.
The script has some nice turns of phrase and a lot of sentiment. At the end of the day it’s about final acts — no big bang here, just a troupe of old friends trying to put on the best show they can.