Director: Dustin Hoffman
It’s taken Dustin Hoffman’s a long time to scratch that directorial itch. However, the most striking thing about Quartet is how twee and comfortable the whole thing is, not the kind of material you’d imagine would attract the star of The Graduate or Marathon Man. Has age dulled Hoffman’s edge? Well, he did star in Little Fockers, so we have to presume his quality control has failed him somewhat. Quartet isn’t a bad film per se; its biggest problem is just how unchallenging and toothless the whole thing is.
One of last year’s biggest surprises was the success of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. The tale of a troop of retirees relocating to India proved popular with a section of the audience often forgotten in mainstream cinema: senior citizens. One hates to generalize, but with its distinguished older cast, themes of past regrets and aging, and being located in an upscale nursing home, it seems inevitable that Quartet will feel the benefit of the salt-n-pepper-haired hordes massing to see it.
This anticipated enthusiasm would not be unfounded; there’s a lot to like in Quartet, first and foremost being the cast. Posho Reginald (Tom Courtenay), womanising Wilf (Billy Connolly) and doting Cissy (Pauline Collins) are residents of Beecham House, a retirement home for former opera singers and orchestral musicians. If that set up sounds too sickly sweet, turn back now. The residents lead a comfortable life of reminiscing on the good times and rehearsing for their fundraising concert, being organised by a nutty Michael Gambon. Perfect timing for a spanner to be thrown into the works!
Along comes Jean (Maggie Smith), the newest resident of the home and Reginald’s estranged ex-wife. Jean’s arrival perturbs Reginald so much that it threatens the staging of the fundraiser, crucial to keeping the home operational. The traits of the characters are basic at best but the cast infuse them with enough charm to sell them. Connolly’s randy old bugger steals every scene he’s in, whilst Courtenay and Smith have plenty twinkle in their eyes to bring life to their backstory. Pauline Collins does the ‘dotty old maid’ routine she plays in EVERY film she makes, but it fits well here. Ronald Harwood adapts his stage play, but there’s nothing going on here to suggest the screenwriter of The Pianist and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly has brought any edge to it. It hints at darker themes (Cissy becoming more forgetful as the film goes on, for example), but ultimately the film’s just a breeze.
Hoffman keeps things bright, bubbly and simple, letting nothing get in the way of the actors. Even he recognizes they’re the trump card here. Their chumminess would make many other films feel smug, but it actually helps Quartet overcome its more sickly sentimental tendencies. The final act is a ‘will-they-won’t-they’ dash to the concert, but you won’t be too fussed whether they do or not. A final speech delivered by the home’s manager (Sheridan Smith) is so gushy as to undermine any goodwill the film establishes beforehand. Still, by that stage Quartet will have brought just enough goodwill to leave you with a wry smile. That won’t stop it from evaporating from your mind as soon as you leave the cinema, but if you need something unchallenging for a Sunday matinée with your granny, Quartet will fit the bill.