Quartet is a pleasant diversion, and will be remembered mainly as Oscar-winning actor Dustin’s Hoffman’s first (only?) directorial effort. Young people will stay away from it in droves, as it concerns a group of classical musicians who live in a lovely but threatened “old-age” home. For older folks, it’s an agreeable trifle with recognizable actors and characters that are worth the visit. It’s equal parts comedy and drama, and while never either deeply moving or howlingly funny, it’s, to use the vernacular, a good rental.
I’ll leave it to the viewer to discover what the title refers to, but there is a good deal of lovely music from real musicians, and that’s the first strength of the film. The second is the cast of characters, including the over-sexed older gentleman, the kind but (literally) demented singer, the past-her-prime operatic diva, and the performer-turned-teacher who thinks he’s found his old-age stride until…(no spoiler here). They are as worn as an old pair of slippers, and generally just as comfortable to have around. No real surprises, but this isn’t a film about surprises.
Maggie Smith, fresh from the rejuvenation of her career supplied by Downton Abbey, slips somewhere between the actress and line reader (see “Actors and Line Readers” on this website) in her role as the opera singer/diva whose arrival at the home stirs up old feelings and new possibilities. Smith is a wonderful actress, and can play nearly anything. Except, it seems, the musical diva. Dame Gwyneth Jones, a retired opera star, plays the operatic diva already living at the home when Smith’s character arrives, and she possesses—and is able to exude—the necessary diva resonance of the opera singer that Smith isn’t able to. Smith is too enjoyable a presence to spend much time carping on that, but it’s noticeable. Singer divas are singer divas, and actress divas are actress divas. There’s a difference.
As a director, Hoffman expectedly gets solid performances from his actors. He brings the action, based on Ronald Harwood’s play (Harwood was also the screenwriter) outside as often as he can to break up the staginess. But he doesn’t seem to quite know where to put his camera, and while each scene has its own rhythm and integrity, the film as a whole lacks pace. And several plot points, as well as the film’s ending, are simply ridiculous outside of an afternoon Disney special.
But as in superhero movies, films like this find their logic in other places than plot. The familiar characters and conflicts are comfortable rather than tired, and the actors playing them are a delight from most important to least. Add to that the genuinely musical artistry of most of the actors in secondary roles, and you have a lightweight bonbon that’s sweet and well worth the time for those who love music and/or are, like the author, of a certain age.