Dustin Hoffman’s genteel directorial debut “Quartet,” starring Maggie Smith and a legion of other notable Brit actors as members of a musicans’ retirement community, will play best for music-loving Anglophiles who enjoy the company of entertaining British seniors. Yet again, wily Dame Smith steals the show as a proud aging diva who arrives at her new home with no idea how much she wounded the husband she once jilted during her more playful days at the top of the opera world. Tom Courtenay is her courtly swain, while Billy Connolly and Pauline Collins chew up the scenery as the remaining members of a famous quartet.
So far this charming escapist romantic comedy, which the Weinsteins debuted in Toronto as an Oscar campaign launch, is sitting a bit lightly with the critics. That’s because it lacks the psychological heft that Hoffman is known for in his astounding resume of acting roles, and seems content to let Smith do what she could in her sleep — “immortal, withering scorn.” Still, Academy actors could push Smith into the Oscar race, either for this lead role or her showier supporting turn in “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.”
Review roundup below.
Dustin Hoffman’s directing bow at 75 finds a perfect match in the well-heeled subject of Quartet, a charming tale of aging musicians whose passion for life continues undiminished in a stately English manor filled with humor, caring and of course great music. This optimistic fairy tale about aging and the continuing possibilities it offers for emotional satisfaction should strike the fancy of older audiences who turned the British indie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel into a breakout hit released around the world.
No wonder [“Quartet”] fails to engage with the vagaries of ageing. What we have here really is the high-school movie given a silver spin. Ronald Harwood’s script, adapted from his own play, follows the template familiar from Fame to The Muppets: there’s some bitching and bullying, in-fighting and ego-jostling, but everyone pulls together at the end to put on a show. Our prom king and queen, who need reuniting after, y’know, history, are Tom Courtenay and Maggie Smith; his sidekick is ladies’ man Billy Connolly, forever winking about “older men, vintage wines, seasoned wood”, while her confidante is dappy Sissy (Pauline Collins). Michael Gambon is a fez-wearing fright, Trevor Peacock a larky muddle. Stereotypes are not shied from.
Instead of delving into the human psyche, as [Dustin Hoffman’s] done so unflinchingly in too many roles to mention — though I will point to the sheer range that took him from “Midnight Cowboy’s” dying gay grifter, Ratso, to a newly single dad in “Kramer vs. Kramer”— 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. There are no echoes of “Tootsie” in its humor, or “The Fockers,” for that matter. 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.
Immortal though the withering scorn of Maggie Smith may be, it’s a complacent filmmaker who asks nothing else of her but a look of haughty horror at whatever new vulgarity awaits. Rest assured, we do get our money’s worth of these in “Quartet”… Thankfully, though, she’s found herself in the hands of a director so sympathetic to the art of performing he’s made a whole film about it.