Dustin Hoffman’s directing bow at 75 finds a perfect match in the well-heeled subject of “Quartet,” a charming tale of aging musicians whose passion for life continues undiminished in a stately English manor filled with humor, caring and of course great music. This optimistic fairy tale about aging and the continuing possibilities it offers for emotional satisfaction should strike the fancy of older audiences who turned the British indie “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” into a breakout hit released around the world. Leading a cast of real-life musical veterans, Maggie Smith and Tom Courtenay put the stamp of quality on a lush-looking production, albeit one that adheres to genre rules with an iron grip.
Smoothly adapted by Ronald Harwood (“The Dresser”) from his 1999 West End play, the film has a lot to do with “Tosca’s Kiss,” a 1984 documentary by the late Swiss director Daniel Schmid about Milan’s Casa Verdi, founded by Giuseppe Verdi as a retirement home for impoverished singers and musicians. Hoffman’s respectful treatment of those slightly otherworldly souls who have dedicated their lives to art is a touching salute that will be appreciated by classical music lovers, for whom arias from Rigoletto to The Mikado should prove ear candy.
The posh Beecham House, nestled in the untainted English countryside like a leftover from a Jane Austen novel, is populated by a crew of genteel, able-bodied oldsters who sing and play classical music all day long. In the music rooms, the conservatory and breakfast room, not to mention assorted gazebos scattered around the sprawling English garden and grounds, it’s the kind of place where a little Bach is always welcome. Arthritic hands play the piano while retired tenor Reginald Paget (Tom Courtenay) holds a music theory class for young people from the area. His witty lesson on the difference between opera and rap shows his thinking is still youthful.
As a matter of fact, there is very little doddering going on here, no visiting relatives to quarrel with, and a lot of reassurance by the home’s director, the good Dr. Lucy Cogan (Sheridan Smith), that the end is still a long way off.
As the camera roams around the manor’s marbled halls, it introduces the gushy but warm-hearted Sissy (Pauline Collins) and twinkling-eyed Wilf Bond (Billy Connolly, Queen Victoria’s faithful servant in “Mrs. Brown”), whose overactive sex drive has not been quenched by his years, though his interest in the ladies is more raunchy wit than active pursuit.
Two big events intertwine to create some drama and suspense. The first is preparations for the annual Verdi gala, on whose fundraising Beecham House depends for its very survival. The other is the arrival of a mystery guest, a star — who turns out to be none other than haughty prima donna Jean Horton (Maggie Smith.) At first the elderly diva refuses to mingle with her former colleagues, and it takes some coaxing for her to admit she’s as hard up as they are. But when asked to reunite with them to sing their famous quartet from Rigoletto, she balks.
Complicating things is the horrified reaction of Reginald, her first husband, who has never forgiven her infidelity which led to the breakup of their marriage. Their third-act rapprochement is a foregone conclusion, but the way Smith and Courtenay go about it is utterly fresh and charming. In a comic vein, Harwood’s acerbic dialogue in the mouth of egotistical opera director Cedric (eccentrically played by Michael Gambon, the Albus Dumbledore of “Harry Potter” fame) never fails to get a laugh.
This is clearly an actors’ film about performers where Hoffman can flex his muscles and experience. He brings humor and a light touch to the clever British dialogue and sardonic social interactions. One feels a bit of Hoffman in the unflappable Connolly who stepped into a role originally conceived for Albert Finney; his unflappable nothing-sacred wit makes Wilf the most endearing character in the film.
The tale ends on the notes of Verdi, with bonus end titles in which the character actors are paired with a publicity photo from their past, showing them in their heyday as singing and performing stars. It’s a lovely salute to the profession.
The project was originally developed with the late Mark Shivas, head of BBC Films.
“Quartet,” a Weinstein Co. release, is rated PG-13 for brief strong language and suggestive humor. 98 minutes.