|By Eleanor Ringel Cater“Quartet” is the movie I wanted “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” to be.
Yet again, some of England’s very best have been gathered together for a little heart, a little soul and some expertly executed comedy. But “Quartet,” blithely handled by Dustin Hoffman in his directorial debut, actually gives these golden oldies something to do.
Based on a play by Ronald Harwood — who also did “The Dresser,” which, in its movie incarnation, starred Laurence Olivier and Tom Courtenay — “Quartet” takes place at Beecham House, a home for retired musicians. It’s a nice place, well kept, with lovely grounds.
So the problem isn’t what’s around the residents; it’s what’s inside them. Many of them are former stars, who worked together in their previous life. Meaning, along with re-kindled friendships, there are old rivalries waiting to explode.
The movie begins by introducing us to several retirees. Reggie (Tom Courtenay), touchy and proud, was a celebrated tenor. Cissy (Pauline Collins an Oscar nominee for “Shirley Valentine”) is softhearted but, we are to assume, perhaps a bit softheaded, too — and probably second-tier in her former professional world.
Billy Connolly plays Wilfred, a flirtatious retirement home Lothario. All in all, the three of them have been close as co-workers and then co-retirees for decades.
That threatens to change when it’s bruited that a diva-among-divas, a monumental opera star named Jean Horton (Maggie Smith, of course) has reserved a room at Beecham House. Once one of the most admired sopranos ever to hit Covent Garden, she, too, is not immune to aging. Instead of waiting for her five-minute call backstage, she’s on the list for a hip replacement— just like the lowliest usher.
But once a diva…
Jean’s arrival causes all sort of fall-out. On the one hand, there’s Reggie, to whom she was once married — for all of nine days before leaving him for someone else. On the other, there’s the over-bearing retired stage director, Cedric (Michael Gambon, aka Professor Dumbledore in the later “Harry Potters”), who still thinks he can will what he wants into being.
Beecham House, we learn, is in financial trouble. So Cedric proposes a solution: a reunion of the famous quartet whose rendition of “Rigoletto” still makes music lovers’ hearts beat faster. They’ll do it, he suggests, on Verdi’s birthday and make a mint.
Easier proposed than done.
Hoffman knows he’s got a cast of the best and brightest, so he stays out of their way. At the same time, he brings his unique humanism and sense of humor to the film.
Now seventy-plus himself, he understands the strange cul-de-sac in which even the most talented performers find themselves. They have the hearts and minds of Hamlet and Juliet, but perforce must play (if they’re lucky) King Lear or The Weird Sisters (the witches) in “Macbeth.”
One of the hallmarks of true British luminaries is that they know how to ham it up without going whole hog. And Hoffman is clearly on their wavelength, with just enough of a Hollywood sensibility tossed in.
He knows exactly where Beecham House is — at least for American audiences.
Right down the road from Downton Abbey.
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