© 2013 Ray Wong

Dustin Hoffman has been an unlikely heartthrob, an actors' actor, and a legend for much of his long career. Now he can add "director" onto his resume as he makes his debut with Quartet.

Set at home for retired musicians in England, the story begins as the residents meander through their days and rehearsing for an upcoming gala celebrating Verdi's birthday. The show is being organized by resident diva Cedric (Michael Gambon), a flamboyant musical director. The stars of the show are three retired opera singers: Reginald (Tom Courtenay) is a stoic tenor who has a regretful past; Wilf (Billy Connolly) is a rumbustious bass who has the hots for young (and married) resident doctor Lucy (Sheridan Smith); and Cissy (Pauline Collins) is an alto who is slowly losing her battle with dementia.

Their routines are interrupted when a new resident enrolls. And that would be Ms. Jean Horton (Maggie Smith), a famous opera diva. The residents are at once thrilled by Jean but also threatened by her demands and the special treatments she receives from the staff. Wilf and especially Cissy are thrilled, because they were once friends with Jean and performed together on stage. Most irritated and upset is Reginald, who refuses to talk to Jean. It turns out Reginald had a brief marriage with Jean a long time ago. While Jean tries to reach out to him, Reginald simply cannot forgive and forget.

Much to their chagrin, however, Cedric has a great idea of reuniting the quartet as the headliners of the gala. The stakes are high -- the retirement home is running out of money and many of the resident musical programs will be cut if they don't come up with the fundings. The proceeds from the gala would keep the programs running for another year. Despite Reginald's objection, they try to convince Jean to join them. Jean, however, is horrified by the idea as she realizes she is not young anymore and she would not bear the embarrassment of revealing that she is no longer the amazing singer she once was. Most important, she has a score to settle with Reginald.

Maggie Smith (The Most Exotic Marigold Hotel) seems to play difficult old maids these days, but she is so good at it. As Jean, however, Smith brings certain grace and elegance to the character as well as a nasty temper and arrogance that are required of the role. Smith does a fantastic job portraying the aging star who is part diva and part scared little girl hoping to fall in love again. Tom Courtenay (The Golden Compass) is wonderful as Reginald. As the stoic gentleman who was once a super star, Courtenay comes across as kind and unassuming, while displaying real resentment toward Jean. Courtenay and Smith also work off each other well to convey the complicated emotions and relationship between the two characters.

Billy Connolly (Gulliver's Travel) has one of the most showy role as Wilf. But underneath that randy facade is a man who is frightened about getting old. Connolly strikes a good balance and avoids playing a caricature. Pauline Collins (Albert Nobbs) impresses as the forgetful but perky Cissy, who is the most likable character in the story. That doesn't mean Collins just cruises through the movie. Her nuanced performance is delicate and yet affecting.

The supporting cast includes Michael Gambon (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) as flamboyant Cedric, and Sheridan Smith (Hysteria) as affable Dr. Lucy. The rest of the cast is comprised of mostly real retired musicians and opera singers (not actors), so there's certain level of authenticity if not perfect performances.

Ronald Hardwood's (Australia) screenplay is simple and straightforward, yet filled with interesting anecdotic moments. Some of those, however, are not staged. The real musicians and singers in the cast bring a lot to the story by sharing parts of their experiences. At the core of the story is an elegant question: how do we go on with life with dignity without giving up our identities, who we once were? There is also a love story in there, and it's one about regrets, mistakes, lost opportunities, connections, and second chances.

If the plot is too simplistic or contrived, Hardwood's story is compensated by his characters who are full of vim and vigor despite their age. It's also compensated by Dustin Hoffman's sensitive direction. Being an actor of a certain age, Hoffman fully understands what it is like to get older and the danger of trying to hang on to past glory while forgetting to live in the present. Hoffman hasn't stopped working, and in a way, his characters don't stop working either, even though they are no longer on a public stage. The story is all about keeping going and doing what one loves regardless of age. It's a very sweet and noble idea, and one that should be acknowledged and cherished. Hoffman's straightforward direction led to a heart-warming and poignant finale that lingered in my mind for quite a while. What a fine quartet!

Stars: Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins, Michael Gambon, Sheridan Smith
Director: Dustin Hoffman
Writer: Ronald Hardwood (based on his own play)
Distributor: Weinstein Company
MPAA Rating:  PG-13 for brief strong language and suggestive humor
Running Time: 98 minutes 


Script - 7
Performance - 8
Direction - 7
Cinematography - 8
Music/Sound - 8
Editing - 7
Production - 7

Total - 7.5 out of 10.0 

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