After working half a century as an actor, Dustin Hoffman finally makes his directorial debut with Quartet, and it’s immediately clear that his filmmaking aspirations haven’t been burning a hole in his belly all these years. Based on the 1999 play by Ronald Harwood, a distinguished British writer whose work includes The Dresser, The Pianist, and The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, Quartet falls into the common actor-turned-director trap of valuing the performances of fellow actors over all other aesthetic concerns. Beloved old-timers like Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Michael Gambon, Pauline Collins, and Billy Connolly are trotted out for slow-clap encores—literally, in two scenes—but the film around them is a genial bore, full of underplayed drama and mildly frisky comedy. It’s a cup of decaf by the sitting window.
Making minimal effort to open up the play for the big screen, Hoffman stages all the action in Beecham House, a special retirement community for opera musicians. Though many of the retirees have lost some of their agility and voice, they nonetheless continue to perform with and for each other, filling the drawing rooms and gazebos with beautiful music. In many respects, Quartet is a lot like Fame, but instead of people breaking out in impromptu song-and-dance numbers, they break out in ornery reminiscences about the past. Many of the latter come courtesy of Maggie Smith, who arrives at Beecham a celebrated diva with a freight of emotional baggage, some related to an ex (Courtenay) with whom she has unresolved issues. Smith and Courtenay once formed a quartet with Connolly and Collins, but she’s reluctant to reunite for an upcoming fundraising gala that might stabilize Beecham’s dwindling finances.
As the obligatory randy old dog, Connolly brings Quartet what little spark it has, working his rogue charm around the home’s attractive young administrator and any other woman who crosses his path. The biggest disappointment in Quartet, though, is how little Smith is given to do, especially considering how often she’s called upon to play haughtiness for wicked laughs. But her dispute with Courtenay, the heart of the drama, amounts to a wan exchange of passive-aggression, all pushing toward the inevitable gala performance that will end the damned thing. The film, along with its characters, goes all too quietly into that goodnight.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, plot details not talked about in this review, visit Quartet’s Spoiler Space.