“Quartet,” the movies’ latest exercise in geriaxploitation, is about old folks living in a not-for-profit British community for retired musicians. It’s “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” with operatic solos instead of sitars and tablas.
It’s also the feature film directing debut of actor Dustin Hoffman, who doesn’t appear on the screen but proves himself more than capable of calling the shots behind the camera. “Quartet” isn’t astoundingly cinematic, but Hoffman clearly knows how to work with actors.
Of course it helps to have an A-list cast of graying Brit thesps on hand.
Set in a formerly grand English country house which now has been divided up into apartments, Ronald Harwood’s screenplay (based on his stage play) centers on the arrival of Jean Horton (Maggie Smith), a once world-famous soprano whose shaky finances have forced her to give up her London townhouse. Now she’s come to Beecham House to live among her aged peers.
Not that she’s looking forward to it. Group living is a real comedown for the imperious Jean, who spends the first few days taking her meals in her room and listening to old LPs of her performances. There’s a touch of the imperious Lady Violet Crawley (of “Downton Abbey,” natch) in Smith’s performance, but also a welcome vulnerability.
Many of the residents (few were stars, most were members of the chorus or instrumentalists playing in the orchestra) are thrilled to have a bit of royalty move in. But not Reginald (Tom Courtney), the sweet old tenor who holds music classes for local high schoolers in which he draws parallels between opera and hip-hop.
Reginald, you see, was once briefly wed to Jean. She was the love of his life… and she cheated on him. They haven’t talked in decades. Serving as a go-between is the garrulous Wilf (Billy Connolly), a rakish white-haired gent with a high school mentality — he’s ever pinching nurses and sneaking snorts of booze and ganja.
And then there’s Cissy (Pauline Collins), whose slow slide into sweet forgetfullness is played both for comedy and pathos.
Beecham House, it seems, is having its own financial crisis. Government funding is inadequate. The residents must hold an annual concert, performing for an invited crowd of high-rolling music enthusiasts who cough up enough cash to keep the place going for another 12 months.
The doctor in charge thinks it would be a splendid idea to have the crowd-shy Joan join up with Reginald, Sissy and Wilf to perform the Quartet from Verdi’s “Rigoletto.” The very gay, very bossy Cedric (Michael Gambon), a former opera director, will be in charge of rehearsals.
So there are really two important plot points here. First, the efforts to coax Jean back onto the stage. Second, the rekindled romance between Jean and Reginald.
“Quartet” is nothing special — why do so many films about the elderly seem to have been run through a computer screenwriting program? — but it is perfectly enjoyable, in no small part because Hoffman has filled the scenes with actual retired musicians. So if the foreground sometimes feels contrived, the background invariably smacks of the real deal.