Dustin Hoffman's first directing credit, at age 75, lands on “Quartet,” a decidedly British movie that is much lighter than the probing kind of character study Hoffman often undertook in his long acting career.
And though it's by-the-numbers predictable, a witty script by Ronald Harwood (“The Dresser” “The Pianist”) and a stellar cast of aging stars makes “Quartet” a satisfying, sentimental outing just the same.
Think “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” with a better script and a dash of starch, a la “Downton Abbey,” and you'll know whether this is your cup of tea.
The movie is set at Beacham House, a British country estate (gorgeous backdrops) turned into a home for retired musicians.
The inhabitants are not resting on their laurels. An annual gala on Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi's birthday, a fundraiser to keep the doors of the place open, is nigh. This year the red ink is especially bad, so they are rehearsing with extra intensity.
Cracking the whip over all of them is retired director Cedric Livingston (Michael Gambon), a man with a raging ego and a profane tongue who wanders from rehearsal to rehearsal in flowing robes, pronouncing harsh judgment over the prospective acts.
That includes Wilf Bond (Billy Connolly), Cissy Robson (Pauline Collins) and Reginald Paget (Tom Courtenay), three members of a quite famous opera quartet.
The actors are playing archetypes that fit them like custom suits. Wilf is the aging lothario, a flirt with a salty tongue. Cissy is a ditzy thing with a big heart, losing her grip to dementia. Reggie, the scholarly introspective type, clings to formality and a long-ago broken heart as he tries to teach visiting young rap fans why opera is relevant in their world.
It's a shock when they learn the new resident of Beacham House is Jean Horton (Maggie Smith), the former fourth in their long-ago quartet. Jean not only broke up the quartet when she struck out on her own, she also chose career over her brief marriage to Reg. Her arrival hits him the hardest.
Cedric is sure a reunion of the quartet can save Beacham. But Jean has lost confidence she can perform publicly, and Reg doesn't want to be in the same room with her.
Hoffman doesn't get flashy with his camera. He doesn't need to, as shrewd casting does most of the work. The collective weight of these talented performers outbalances the piece's flaws. It's fun to watch them elevate cookie-cutter material to comedy that sails without straining too mightily.
Stay for the closing credits, which pair the faces of many supporting players you may not have recognized with their claims to fame.
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