Like “The King’s Speech,” “Quartet” is musty and middlebrow, set in an imagined Britain of high class and low jokes. What it lacks in period pedigree it makes up for in a steady diet of quips from the form’s reigning dowager, Maggie Smith. In The Weinstein Company’s hands, it will likely earn solid box office and awards attention.
Set in a home for retired musicians, perhaps the best that can be said about much of “Quartet” is that it’s wholeheartedly inoffensive. The film ranges about the pretty grounds in autumn, gently probing its aging characters’ nostalgia for a day, long since past, when singing Verdi provided passage into the world of stardom. It’s a sweet, sometimes saccharine, piece of work, comfortable gliding along the surface of what it might mean to have achieved greatness only to be forgotten. It is, as Reggie (Tom Courtenay) says about his hopes for retirement, a form of “dignified senility.”
Director Dustin Hoffman and thrice-Oscar-nominated writer Ronald Harwood (who won for “The Pianist”) who adapted the script from his own play, do little to prevent their good intentions from winnowing the characters down to mere placeholders, thin guises of the “old people are funny” variety. Billy Connolly plays the lecher, making a charming pass at every younger woman who walks by; Pauline Collins gets the daffy grandma, warm and childlike; and Michael Gambon, his flowing, embroidered costumes seemingly stolen from Dumbledore’s closet, lords over the proceedings as the imperious director of the home’s annual fundraising gala.
Only Maggie Smith, as a haughty and very much unloved opera legend, is able to break from the grasp of this sustained pleasantness, channeling the sharp-tongued misanthropy of her role on “Downton Abbey” from the first. Given her long career, recent resurgence, and the film’s placidly “tasteful” sensibility, I can’t help but think that her performance will lead to an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. She curses, sneers, and comes around, even intimating the film’s underlying, mostly unacknowledged sadness. In an otherwise airless movie, Smith barrels through like a gust of wind.
If, for about 90 of its 94 minutes, “Quartet” managed to make mundane its notions of love, death, and bitterness — a pill easily swallowed, but a pill without punch — I was almost surely alone in this assessment. The matinee crowd at the New Orleans Film Festival, mainly of the age group that turned “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” into one of the year’s surprise hits, gave it a hearty endorsement of laughs and applause. “Quartet” is an effective piece of safety-valve cinema, careful never to let its emotions run too hot or cold, and for that it seems to have been all the more popular with the audience.
The other four minutes, unaccountably, left me terribly moved. Like “The King’s Speech,” “Quartet” builds to a rousing, heartfelt ending — I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that even the end credits had me welling up — that nearly, but not quite, erases the memory of what’s come prior. “What happened to forgive and forget?” Smith’s character asks her estranged ex-husband midway through the film. A good lesson for life, perhaps, but not wise advice for the movies.
The U.S. theatrical release of “Quartet” is set for December 28.