Only to be enjoyed after dinner with a glass of aged brandy, actor Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut Quartet is a dark chocolate delight glazed with fine aristocratic finesse. Based on the play Quartet by Ronald Harwood, the charming bitter-sweet comedy offers 94 minutes of spiced British humor, brilliant acting, and breathtaking scenery – all complimented by the perpetual music of the classics. Insisting on the joy in the life of the retired musician possessed with eternal passion for the craft, this decorated feature inhabited by respected patrons of the British stage is a heart-warming ode to the magic of opera.
Set in a plush home for retired classical musicians outside London, Quartet draws back the curtain on an unrealistically harmonious world populated by chirping opera retirees and quirky staff members busied with preparations for the annual gala concert celebrating Verdi’s birthday. Brimming with everlasting enthusiasm and passion for the craft, the uplifting atmosphere in the Beechman House is contagious. Amidst daily rehearsals and doctor’s exams, the energetic retirees incorporate various classes and physical activities, putting to shame the pop-oriented youngsters attending Reg’s (Tom Courtenau) weekly opera classes. Well groomed and always dressed in style, each of the residents (without exceptions) awaits to embrace another day of joy, pushing withering voices and declining stamina to the limit.
Suddenly the zing in the air gets interrupted by the arrival of former opera diva Jean Horton (Maggie Smith) known in the circles for her meticulous precision and discipline as well as for her short-temper and over-confidence — turning rivals into life-long enemies most of whom reside at the home (including her ex-husband Reg). Soon after a staged warm welcome organized in Jean’s honor, a period of necessary adjustments takes place for both the bubbly residents and the judgmental diva.
However, her biggest challenge remains facing the rejection of heart-broken Reg who hasn’t yet gotten over their past. Luckily, two residents who are Reg’s longtime friends and colleagues come to the rescue: perky Cissy (Pauline Collins) and cheeky Wilf (Billy Connolly). Cissy’s naïve personality and high-spirits, and Wilf’s perverse sarcasm make the reunion of the two ex-lovers seem effortless. But for the inseparable trio there are more pressing concerns, namely their upcoming performance of Rigoletto‘s third act quartet “Bella figlia dell’amore,” demanding strong silk voices and another passionate participant.
Due to its adequate editing choices, Quartet offers a perfect balance of cinematic features. Without losing its momentum, each scene holds just the right amount of humor, music, and dialogue resulting in a pleasing cinematic fluidity. Here the presence of the enchanting diegetic classical music enhances the mood of each scene (without being overwhelming). The classy interior design, regal costumes and picturesque estate, and the consistency of the bold humor containing jokes with a lasting punch, are feasts for the eye and ear.
Despite a number of shattering wake-up calls arriving with a few Alzheimer’s episodes, the constant aches of the elderly residents and one urgent departure to the hospital, Quartet is a story of not giving up on joy. The complete opposite of Mike Haneke’s pessimistic drama Amour – a film that embodies the filmmaker’s darkest fears regarding the corroding nature of old age- Quartet shows Hoffman, who himself nears 74, overcoming the gloom by painting an optimistic picture of the bitter reality faced by every opera alumnus who has once and forever vacated the majestic stage.