Dustin Hoffman has taken 45 years as both one of our most acclaimed actors, and as a major box office draw, to step behind the camera. In fact, that’s not strictly true; Hoffman was the original director of his terminally underrated 1978 crime picture “Straight Time,” but struck by indecisiveness early in production, made way for Ulu Grosbard instead. But now, nearly 35 years on, the legendary star has finally completed his debut directorial effort, “Quartet,” an adaptation of the play by Ronald Harwood (“The Pianist“).
A modest little comedy about retired British opera singers, it’s not immediately an intuitive choice for Hoffman, the man who starred in “The Graduate,” “Midnight Cowboy” and “Straw Dogs,” among others. But it’s easy enough to see how it happened; the film’s a love letter to retired performers of any kind, and particularly the British near-legends he’s assembled for his cast, and the result, while pretty uninspired, is passable enough as a kind of better “Exotic Marigold Hotel.” Your mum will probably love the shit out of it, is what we’re saying.
In a retirement home specifically for elderly classical musicians somewhere in the British countryside, three former opera singers, who formed 3/4 of a famous quartet, are living happy enough lives. Wilf (Billy Connolly) hasn’t let age temper his raging libido, continually making passes at administrator Dr. Cogan (Sheridan Smith), and at his former musical partner Cissy (Pauline Collins), who’s starting to suffer from dementia. Meanwhile, Reginald (Tom Courtenay) spends much of his time teaching music to local schoolkids, still broken hearted about a long-dissolved marriage. But his life, in particular, is upended by the arrival of his ex-wife Jean (Maggie Smith), the fourth part of the quartet, and the woman from whom Reginald’s been recovering for decades.
The bossy Cedric (Michael Gambon) immediately suggests that the quartet reunite for the first time in years to perform at the concert that the home throws for Guiseppe Verdi’s birthday every years, but Reginald is being careful to have as little to do with his ex-wife as possible. Can he be won round? Can Jean be convinced to get over her fear that she can no longer perform? Will Cissy’s mind hold up? We imagine the answers aren’t massively in doubt in your mind, and they certainly weren’t in ours.
Which isn’t to say that there aren’t pleasures to be found here. The latest example in the increasingly popular Maggie-Smith-Has-Some-Cutting-Put-Downs sub-genre (see “Downton Abbey,” “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel“), there’s always some joy to be found in the veteran actress doing her thing, and elsewhere in that main cast too. Connolly has enormous fun as the aging lothario, with as many of the best lines as Smith, while Courtenay delivers the best performance in the film, a touching, dignified elder statesman reduced to a crumble by the woman who broke his heart. Collins (perhaps a less well known face in the States, but a one time Best Actress nominee for “Shirley Valentine“) fares slightly less well, only because the character is written with a determination to wring laughs out of Alzheimers, but she handles the pathos nicely. Of the supporting cast, it’s the youngest principle member, Sheridan Smith — a huge stage and TV star in the UK — who most impresses, suggesting bigger movie roles should be on the way before too long.
One suspects that it was the chance to work with veterans in the twilight of their career that really appealed to Hoffman, as there’s a loving sense of nostalgia, particularly in the glimpses of the cast members in their glory days, as well as the way that Hoffman stacks the incidental characters with real-life famous classical musicians, Dame Gwyneth Jones being perhaps the most famous of them. One senses that Hoffman is both relishing a chance to work with people he truly admires, and taking the opportunity to remind the audience that crossing 70 doesn’t prevent artists and performers from having something to offer.
But Hoffman doesn’t quite put it into practice when it comes to showing that an old dog can have some new tricks. To put it simply, when it comes to his helming abilities, Hoffman seems to have been taking notes from the directors “Last Chance Harvey” and “Little Fockers” rather than his long-ago collaborators like John Schlesinger or Mike Nichols. It’s an entirely pedestrian visual approach, big-screen sitcom, and it’s a little disappointing when you think of the passage from “Straight Time” to this. Maybe that would be fine if Harwood’s script had more going on, but there’s so little drama and conflict involved that the whole film washes over you without making much of an impact.
Still, that washing over is a fairly pleasant experience; it might be virtually the dictionary definition of middlebrow, but “Quartet” is a hard film to dislike entirely, thanks principally to the charms of its cast. You’ll likely forget that you’ve ever seen it by the time that 2013 rolls around, but when you are reminded that you paid money for it, you won’t feel entirely cheated. [C]