This weekend I faced the rare dilemma of choosing between two movies starring actors of about my own advanced years. (With salient exceptions such as “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” the film industry doesn’t feature stars in films about the old and the resting.) I could have seen “Bullet to the Head” with Sylvester Stallone, but somehow the spectacle of 66-year old Sly kicking butt didn’t appeal. Besides, I’m betting the title is all you need to know about the plot.
Instead, and happily, I chose to see “Quartet,” starring Pauline Collins, Billy Connolly, Tom Courtenay, Michael Gambon, and Maggie Smith in the directorial debut of Dustin Hoffman—at 77 years old. The post, post “Graduate” actor earns top marks in this “small” but effective film, decidedly an “actors’ movie,” one that is full of wonderful actors and musicians, most of them of a certain age.
Set in fictional Beecham House, a retirement home for English singers and musicians, the story involves the preparations for an imminent annual fundraising gala in celebration of Verdi’s birthday. This year’s affair is crucial, since the place is threatened with closing should its patrons be proven insufficiently generous. The imperious longtime director, Cedric Livingston (Gambon), is having an unusually difficult time rounding up talent, since his principals have the annoying habit of getting sick or dying.
So when former diva Jean Horton (Smith), takes up residence, she looks like a godsend. But be careful of what you wish for: not only is Jean a headstrong, egotistical diva, but she and her ex-husband and current Beecham resident, Reg (Courtenay), have a history of ill will. Seems that Jean cheated on Reg about nine hours after they were wed, and he has never forgiven her for the heartbreak. Since she and Reg, along with Cissy (Collins) and Wilf (Connolly), would perform the evening’s highlight, the famous quartet from Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” it’s crucial that they reconcile.
This being a comedy, though one with some sad thematic undertones concerning aging and various kinds of loss, they do get back together, though we never quite get to see the resulting triumph. Along the way to this thoroughly predictable resolution, however, we benefit from these veteran actors’ delightful realization of Ronald Harwood’s screenplay, adapted from his own stage play. Hoffman and cinematographer John de Borman take the story outside onto the beautiful grounds of Hedsor House and Park in Buckinghamshire. Dario Marianelli’s original score and recordings which run the gamut from rap to music hall to Bach and Mozart infuse the scenes with music deftly chosen for the mood and the moment in the script. Stick around for the closing credits, which show many of the supporting cast in their salad days, a touching tribute to their manifold talents.
Rated “PG-13” for language and some comic sexual suggestiveness, “Quartet” has not made much money in the three weeks since its release, and it likely will be hard to find. If you can’t track it down, make sure to get the DVD when it appears. It’s not a requirement that you be on Medicare to enjoy it, though those who are will get some jokes that the less grey-haired will not. On the strength of their latest efforts, I won’t miss Schwarzenegger and Stallone when they finally wise up and hang it up. But this movie gives me hope that, as my generation ages, more movies like “Quartet” will be made for us and with stars like those here.