Older but wiser? Not necessarily. Quartet, the uneven directorial debut of 75-year-old Dustin Hoffman, offers less than complimentary portraits of the aging folks who share the beautifully appointed living quarters and sprawling gardens of Beecham House, a home for retired musicians in the English countryside; they're plagued with mild strains of envy, jealousy, anger, sexual frustration and, in one case, extreme bitterness over a long-ago wrecked marriage. At times, the place feels like high school, 50 or 60 years hence — over here are the popular kids and the Alpha types, over there are the slackers, and the brains and nerds are somewhere else altogether, keeping their heads down.
And yet by the end of it all, the assorted singers and instrumentalists have pooled their considerable talents and bridged their differences well enough to put together an impressive celebration of Verdi's birthday, a gala fundraiser designed to ensure the financial well being of the estate (in reality, a privately owned Georgian home known as Hedsor House).
The story, adapted by Ronald Harwood (The Pianist, The Dresser) from his stage play, is sentimental, often in the extreme. One character actually says, "I don't believe he ever stopped loving you." But even the coldest heart could warm to some of the particulars of the production: the string quartets, choruses and assorted small combos heard and seen on screen are genuine, the real-time music coming courtesy of a variety of aging performers who, as the credits reveal, boast illustrious resumes.
Quartet might be thought of as a high-toned counterpart to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, also starring Maggie Smith and also centered on the goings-on at a home for retirees. The tale isn't complicated. Smith is Jean Horton, an acclaimed soprano new to the Beecham; she initially insists on taking her meals in her room, and declares that she has sworn off singing, a sure sign that she's bound to break that vow. Jean's arrival upsets the equilibrium of a place where, despite the residents' differences, they've mostly figured out how to live and let live.
Hoffman's film mostly goes somewhere slow, and he's largely content to let the drama unfold at a laidback pace, as lead characters come into view, along with numerous supporting players. Tom Courtenay is the courtly, sensitive Reggie, deeply troubled by the sudden appearance of his ex-wife, Jean, but conscientious enough to continue leading a class of high-schoolers on the relative merits of opera versus hip-hop. His best pal is Wilf (Billy Connolly), a fast-talking one-man charm offensive and relentless horndog, forever hitting on the home's much younger female staffers. His excitability over even the smallest pleasures is infectious: he says a special jam "tastes like Christmas." And he's quick with a quip, forever trading comic barbs with the gala's bossy, pretentious, overbearing director (Michael Gambon).
Wilf and Reggie pal around with Cissy (Pauline Collins), sweet natured and attentive but ditzy and apparently headed in the direction of dementia. The three make it their mission to enlist Jean to perform the quartet from Rigoletto for the gala. Will she relent, and help Beecham survive? Will Reggie and Jean stoke the embers of a romance that, decades ago, was seemingly burnt to a crisp? Quartet shuffles its way to a not-surprising conclusion. And yet there is considerable pleasure to be had in watching these veteran actors do that thing they do.