One sentence synopsis: Four retired operatic singers must perform a celebrated piece from earlier in their careers to save their retirement home.
Things Havoc liked: Maggie Smith is a gem. She's been in something like a billion films, plays and television shows over the course of her career, and amassed a haul of awards for them so long that wikipedia had to give the list its own page. I'm aware of course that her career spans six decades, but to me and those my age, Smith has always been an old lady, defiantly disposing of the notion that there exist no roles for women above a certain age, and being continuously awesome as she does so. Yet ageless as she might appear to me, Smith, like all of us, is not eternal, and at 78, one does wonder how many years she will be able to continue her epochal career. If such a question appears overly morose to lead off a review with, then I must beg indulgence, for it is with such concepts in firmly in mind, that we turn to Maggie Smith's latest starring role, in Dustin Hoffman's directorial debut, Quartet.
Smith's character, Jean Horton, was once an opera singer of fame and renown, now long-since retired and forced at last by ill health or penury (it's never stated which) to move into Beecham House, a stately English country manor that serves as a retirement home for singers and musicians. If there's a character archetype that Smith knows how to play with her eyes closed, it's this one, a biting, superior, elderly matron, dignified and aristocratic and vaguely contemptuous of the bedlam that she finds around her. No, the role is not really a stretch from her parts in Gosford Park or Downton Abbey, but watching her react to her erstwhile surroundings and companions feels less like a rehash and more like the reprisal of a comfortably-established character. Having done this sort of thing for so long, Maggie Smith has become an almost archetypical figure, whose appearance in different films under different names feels not derivative but warmly familiar. She is, of course, spectacular in the role, but then we knew she would be going in. Indeed, it's why we came to see her.
But Smith is hardly the only one here. The core of the story centers around Smith and three other former singers, played by Tom Courtney (who looks like an older Benedict Cumberbatch, and plays Smith's dignified, and still bitter ex-husband), Pauline Collins (playing a forgetful, oblivious, motor-mouth), and Billy Connolly (getting the best lines in the film as usual as he plays a randy old goat). Every one of the above actors is a towering veteran of the English film and theater scene, with decades of work behind them, and all of them are, of course, excellent here. Connolly in particular uses some vague excuse of a stroke to explain why he refuses to filter anything he says and hit on anything walking, while Collins acts like a cheerleader on some kind of amphetamine, finding the worst possible time to say things with unerring, mathematical precision. Courtney, meanwhile is the soul of dignity, matching Smith's performance quite handily as he tries to deal with the sudden interruption of his ex-wife and the many, many years of baggage into his quiet retirement. A scene early on with Courtney discussing opera and rap with a pack of teenagers transcends the expected cliche of the out-of-touch old fart by actually letting him talk about a subject he obviously cares deeply about, even if his knowledge of the intricacies of rap is, of course, lacking. Similarly, while the subject matter of the conversations between him and Smith, or Smith and the rest of the quartet, may be material we've seen in other films (will the old flames learn to love one another again, the audience asks expectantly), we've rarely seen it done this well, as the actors are superb, and the writing sounds like the sorts of conversations that adults might actually have.
As I mentioned before, Dustin Hoffman directed this film, his first ever, and based on the evidence, I can't figure out why he waited this long. The marks of a good (or bad) director can be hard to parse out sometimes, as they neither write nor edit nor score nor act in the film, but instead weave these things together to produce a holistic result, but even with that in mind, this film is clearly directed with a steady hand. Much time is taken with various supporting characters, most of whom are actual retired singers and musicians whom Hoffman cast to lend verisimilitude to the project. Tiny bits, such as the complaint by chorus singers and orchestral musicians that the soloists are still lording over them unfairly make Beecham House seem like a real place, or at least a place that could exist, filled at all hours with musicians and singers still practicing their craft after all the decades. A good many of these actors I have, of course, never heard of, but Hoffman does add in several other stars of British cinema to thicken the mix, including Michael Gambon, who prances about in a dressing gown and barks orders like the music director he clearly used to be, and even Michael Byrne, of Indiana Jones fame, with a small role that nevertheless brought a smile to my face. It's decisions like these, the decision to turn the film into a outright showcase of British actors over 70, the decision to focus more on the setting and tone than on the largely-derivative plot, even the decision of how to handle the basic fact that the movie is leading up to an operatic performance that, manifestly, none of these actors are capable of rendering, that shows Hoffman's skill. Unlike Spielberg or Scorsese or Polanski, Hoffman doesn't try to establish a "style". He just makes the right decisions for the film, consistently.
Things Havoc disliked: And it's a damn good thing he does, because the plot of this movie is even older than our leading actors. Stop me if you've heard this before: "We have to put on a good show or we won't be able to keep our charming-yet-quirky facility running any longer." For bonus points, try this one: "Let's take the flighty, stubborn lead actor who has finally begun to mellow a bit out to dinner and surprise them with a request to do something they don't want to do, which will in no way cause them to interpret the affair as a setup and make them hate us for the designated third section of the movie. I'm sure that bringing along the kooky supporting character who has been established as being unable to keep her mouth shut will not result in awkward revelations at inconvenient moments."
I know it's hard to write an original story. Maybe impossible. I also know that I see more movies than most people tend to. But seriously, is there any audience still left in the world that doesn't roll their eyes when they hear the old cliche of "how will we get the money to save the farm/orphanage/theater/studio/whatever" answered with "we'll win the conveniently-timed contest/competition/gala/festival/whatever"? Can there possibly be anyone who, upon hearing that Maggie Smith and Tom Courtney used to be married, but that their marriage ended on a sour note of bitterness, believes that they will end the movie still genuinely despising one another? Is it really a spoiler to answer the question of whether or not Maggie Smith puts her pride aside in the service of saving Beecham House and agrees to perform with her old friends? This is not a long film, and much of its runtime is taken up with establishing shots, colorful supporting characters, and interludes of music or singing, all decisions I suspect might have had something to do with the fact that the plot of the film is not merely tired but very thin.
Final thoughts: But then again, I can't say that the thickness of the plot or lack thereof was on my mind as I watched this film. If it has no better reason for existing than merely to revel in the skills of the older generation of British actors, I certainly cannot condemn it on that account. And indeed, for all the lighthearted music and song of the movie, there is quite a strong undercurrent of finality to this film, whether it be shots of Smith reflecting on what her life was and what it has been reduced to, or a simple moment when Connolly, experiencing a rush of dizziness, gets an unmistakable look of 'is this it?' on his face. I spoke before of Maggie Smith's age (a gross indelicacy for which I must beg her pardon), not simply to fill space, but because the film plays rather like a swan song for many of the actors involved. Of course there has been no sign of Smith or any of the others ending their careers (Connolly will be joining the Hobbit's cast for the next two films), but inevitably, they, like the characters they play in this film, will eventually no longer appear to dazzle us anew. Yet rather than seeming funereal, the film celebrates both actors and characters for who they are, not who they were, not even if the latter was many times more lustrous than the former. Ultimately, all the film can do is afford these great actors an opportunity for yet another dignified bow. And if it should prove to be the last, then if nothing else, it can see them off to one final round of genuine applause.
Final Score: 8/10