Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut, Quartet, is an ensemble piece set in a retirement home for musicians. Based on a play by Ronald Harwood, the conceit is a little stretched: Britain’s greatest musicians wallowing away their late years in a stately old manor house, playing croquet and sneaking nips of scotch behind their young and blond doctor’s back.
Driving the film ahead is a sit-com-y situation: the house is running out of money and in order to save the home, the musicians must stage a benefit concert. Then a new resident arrives, Jean Horton (Maggie Smith), the diva of her generation, and a woman whose presence still pricks the heart of Reginald Paget (Tom Courtenay), a tenor who is thrown into a funk with Horton’s arrival. Slowly details emerge. The two were married, and together with Wilf Bond (Billy Connolly) and Cissy Robson (Pauline Collins), the four sung the definitive recording of the quartet in Verdi’s Rigoletto. Three of the four hatch a plan to reunite the quartet, and thus save the retirement home.
Luckily for Quartet, this Scooby Doo plotline is mostly kept under wraps. Hoffman works harder to layer the interlocking relationships and allow each character’s particular charm to warm the screen. It’s Connolly who largely steals the show with his bravado and sometimes bawdy sense of humor, while the sparks that begin to fly between Smith and Courtenay never feel quite sufficient to catch ablaze. Against this romance, the underlying theme is one of age and talent. It all conjures a hint of melancholy for the passing of moments in the sun, but the swan song never transcends a sweet and slight sense of goodhearted feeling.