Old age is suddenly au courant in film, what with “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” “Amour” and now “Quartet.” The focus in “Quartet,” actor Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut, is on old age that perseveres until the final curtain falls.
The setting is leafy Beecham House, named for the great conductor and inhabited by retired British musicians, both singers and instrumentalists: To the usual concerns about bodily infirmities and institutional food, these elders can add sniping about careers that transpired before the advent of digital recordings.
Three of them — Reggie (Tom Courtenay), the brooding intellectual; Cissy (Pauline Collins), wading through the shallows of dementia; and Wilf (Billy Connolly), charming but prone to egregious pottymouth — are good friends and allies. They sang together often, most notably in a famous production of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Rigoletto.”
Then the fourth member of the quartet arrives. Soprano Jean Horton (Maggie Smith; singing voice of Ileana Cotrubas), still imperious in retirement, had a great career, which she abruptly quit. She was also, briefly, married to Reggie, who carries a grudge — and, it turns out, a torch.
Meanwhile, Beecham House is in the midst of a financial crisis. It’s imperative that the annual gala, held on Verdi’s birthday, be a success, but the star who was to anchor it has withdrawn due to illness. With Jean’s arrival, Cedric, the caftan-affecting director (Michael Gambon), thinks he has his solution. Will she consent to sing?
The answers to that question and others do not occasion much suspense, but the journey to the conclusion is enjoyable, thanks to a veteran cast that knows how to turn the predictabilities of Ronald Harwood’s screenplay (based on his own stage play by the same name) into dramatic gold, with a soundtrack to match.
Hoffman trusts his actors, and directs this thoughtful comedy with a sure hand. Smith makes a splendid diva, and the thoughtful Courtenay is the perfect foil. Connolly is close to obnoxious with the satyriasis shtick, but Collins is touching as she fades in and out. They lack the physical stigmata that mark the opera singer (the thickened neck and chest), and Collins’ speaking voice is nothing like the contralto she plays (more like a retired soubrette), but their performances convince.
They have the perfect supporting cast, made up of a group of exceptional real-life musicians: retired members of orchestras and opera companies, and a pianist bristling with the suppressed impatience of the longtime accompanist. (To see who they are, stick around for the credits.)
The real gem is soprano Dame Gwyneth Jones as Jean’s onetime rival, Anne Langley. Jones, a noted singing actor, has the hauteur down pat and gets one of the film’s most touching, genuine moments. With a voice past its prime but still showing its gold at the end of its “third act,” she sings “Vissi d’arte,” from Puccini’s “Tosca”: “I lived for art; I lived for love.”
That sums up this lovely, gentle film.
What “Quartet”• Three and a half stars out of four • Rating PG-13 • Run time 1:38 • Content Brief strong language and suggestive humor • Where Plaza Frontenac