12, 2012, Directed by Dustin Hoffman
Starring: Tom Courtenay, Maggie Smith, Pauline Collins, Billy Connolly
A quintessentially British cast has been compiled for screen legend Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut, Quartet, based on Ronald Harwood's play about a group of former musicians who now live together in a retirement home: think The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for opera singers.
The old-age heroes are a trio when we first meet them, formed by Pauline Collins, Billy Connolly and Tom Courtenay - before a singing blast from their past, in the form of Maggie Smith, completes the quartet. The happy reunion is stunted by an apparent ‘history’ between Smith’s former-superstar Jean and Courtenay’s Reg, causing considerate struggles when the quartet must reform one final time at Beecham House’s annual gala to mark what would have been Verdi’s birthday. Each are delegated their individual character set-pieces to begin with, almost disparate from each other as they stroll/glide/hobble their way around the retiring home. Courtenay leads talks with visiting schoolchildren, attempting to decipher the ‘modern art form of rap,’ whilst Connolly's cheeky Scot Wilf is busy making harmless advances on the home's sweet young carer, Dr Coburn (Sheridan Smith) and Collins’ sporadic Sissy flits about, forgetting to deliver notes to fellow residents. It is when Smith makes her presence known to these that Quartet keeps it together; up-tight, and not in anyway self-deprecating, the actress makes her Jean warm, in an otherwise pretty cold role. Reg's evident problem with Jean’s presence is explored with care by Courtenay and Smith, even if this does lead to what appears to be several memory lapses in the space of a scene; thankfully, the script doesn’t notch this down to their age.
As is the same with other films that may contain older characters, there's always a hint of danger - a stumble here, a raised voice there may evoke uneasiness in concern of the consequence of such an action. Fortunately, Quartet includes hints of these moments with nothing coming of them - instead allowing Hoffman to embrace why these characters, and we as cinemagoers, have come together instead of opting for what could have been a more dramatic route. This does mean that several moments are left open ended (early stages of dementia are evidently witnessed) – but the film’s close is wholesome enough to satisfy. Admittedly, Hoffman's direction isn't actively felt, although you can tell the legend wallowed in the Buckinghamshire country scenery and the script falls flat at countless moments. No, Quartet may not be a nail-biter, or even the film of the year, but it's a carefully-constructed piece that cares about its characters more than most; lest we forget, Hoffman knows character - his portrayal of cinema icons Benjamin Braddock (The Graduate), Ratso (Midnight Cowboy) to name but a few. It is to his credit that backing him up are four incredibly-established actors who all ensure that Quartet remains a performance-led piece, that may at times require a walking stick to keep it upright.