“This isn’t a retirement home - it’s a madhouse!” quavers Maggie Smith, inimitably, as her character observes a Salsa class full of gyrating geriatrics in Quartet, Dustin Hoffman’s film adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s play. Playing Jean Horton - one-time opera icon and now reluctant resident to Beecham House, home for retired singers and musicians - Smith delivers her most varied and vibrant screen performance since My House in Umbria almost ten years ago. Yes, the role still permits Smith to retain her crown as Queen of the Bitchy Put-down, but it also goes beyond this familiarity, allowing her to play vulnerability, regret, self-doubt, and, ultimately, radiance. It’s a truly delightful performance, one of several that light up Hoffman’s slight but warm and engaging film, a work whose very subject is performance itself.
The eminent Jean’s arrival stirs things up at Beecham House because it reunites her with some old rivals and, also, some old cronies, namely the caring, muddled Cissy (Pauline Collins), the bawdy Wilf (Billy Connolly) and the taciturn Reg (Tom Courtenay), to whom Jean was briefly hitched before the marriage foundered after her confession of infidelity. Years before, these four performed together in a legendary production of Rigoletto. And with the home facing closure, and - wouldn’t you know? - a fundraising concert to celebrate Verdi’s birthday on the horizon, it’s not long before Cissy, Wilf and Reg are trying to persuade the resistant Jean to join them in performing the “Bella figlia dell’amore” quartet from the opera once again.
Making his directorial debut, Hoffman has done a pretty admirable job on Quartet. The movie is a much more handsome, elegant piece of work than was John Madden’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the “grey pound” phenomenon whose success it looks very likely to repeat. (Here, as there, Maggie Smith is cast as a woman in need of a hip replacement.) Harwood’s material is equally thin and unsubtle and his setting up of narrative dilemmas - will the home close? will Reg forgive Jean? will Jean join the quartet? - is basic to say the least. I imagine that the piece could be fairly excruciating on stage (and the movie itself plays the "isn't-it-hilarious-when-old-people-talk-about-sex?" card at least once too often for my taste), but Hoffman keeps it fluid here, cutting down on the obviousness a little. Harwood’s adaptation opens things up simply but effectively (there’s a preponderance of scenes set outside, in the attractive grounds of Hedsor House, Buckinghamshire) and the director shows wit in his framing of the action. The residents’ routines are briskly established in wry, rhythmic scenes scored to classical pieces, and the movie conveys a sense of the day-to-day life of the home, overseen by - yes - a jolly “ethnic” staff and run by one Dr. Cogan (the ubiquitous Sheridan Smith, very charming).
What makes Quartet especially pleasurable, though, is the respect and love that Hoffman clearly feels for those on screen. He’s filled the movie with veteran performers, not only actors but also “real” opera singers and musicians, and each makes a vivid impression no matter how limited their screen time. The cast interact superbly, from Collins’s sweetly optimistic Cissy - who’s given depth in the movie’s most moving moment - to a fabulously costumed Michael Gambon, who barks ferociously and preens gloriously as the home’s self-satisfied musical director. The affectionate tone is established from the lovely opening shot of Patricia Loveland at her piano and it’s sustained to the end: a truly touching closing credit sequence which matches all the performers with pictures of their younger selves. Quartet is about as predictable and as precious as a film can be, but the wit and spirit of its cast - and their director's fond gaze upon them - manage to turn it into something more: an actors’ symphony.