Review: Quartet

(Dustin Hoffman, 2012)
(Originally posted at Take One)

Cashing in on the current wave of films targeted at a more senior audience, most recently (and lucratively) powered by The King’s Speech and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut Quartet is a shakily handled and amateurishly assembled little ditty that boasts a supremely talented cast besmirched by a lowest common denominator screenplay. Stepping behind the camera for the first time, Hoffman attempts to create a genial slice of British escapism by amalgamating an enviable cast list peppered by some of our most respected acting talent – and for the most part he succeeds – but only by having them play on their collective status as heritage actors playing thinly sketched pseudonyms of themselves.

Adapted by Ronald Harwood from his own play, the film is set in and around the tranquil climes of Beecham House, a respectable home for retired musicians. Kept alive by its sprightly residents and the near constant hum of the classical music they so beautifully practice in time for an annual concert celebrating Giuseppe Verdi’s birthday, Beecham is a haven for the forgotten star disillusioned – but not forgotten – amongst today’s zippier musical climate. The friendship shared by three long-term denizens, the mannered Reggie (Tom Courtenay), perpetually forgetful Cecily (Pauline Collins) who dwindles closer to dementia, and the twinkly-eyed old flirt Wilfred (Billy Connolly), is ruptured however with the arrival of bitter diva Jean Horton (Maggie Smith, practically rehashing her bitterly droll role in TV’s Downton Abbey).

Soured by her unwilling admittance to Harwood, brought about by her old age and a tricky hip, Jean cuts an acidic figure full of pent up rage and repressed hostility towards the mistakes of her dexterous past, which saw her break Reggie’s heart with an affair. Slowly stitching her way into the equilibrium of the house, Jean considers a change of heart when asked to sing once more with her three old vocal partners, building bridges and coming to terms with the happiness age brings in the process.

Imbued with silly humour – replete with obvious gags about Reggie’s ignorance to Lady Gaga and Hip Hop when faced with an audience of rapping school kids – and sunny perceptions about the autumn years of one’s life, Quartet knows its target demographic and aims to appeal directly to a distinguished demographic well versed in the cultural viability of opera and classical music. With a storyline that is rendered secondary to Hoffman and Harwood’s vested dissection of the undying psychological vehemence of performance, placing their veritable cast on an esteemed pedestal, the film is rendered empty by its yearning to be as crowd-pleasing as possible, which it undoubtedly is but at a price. The filmmaker’s seem to think that getting their leading stars to say swear words and play on their standings as treasured British thespians is enough to gloss over a thin premise that forgets to explore the more interesting aspects it begins to set up. The inner hierarchies established at Beecham and the threat of closure are merely highlighted then brushed away, for example.

Rounded out by Michael Gambon, Sheridan Smith and Andrew Sachs, Hoffman’s first stint as a filmmaker is saggy but well meaning, hiding behind the predictabilities of its narrative and the light-hearted caricatures looking to enjoy a dignified senility.

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