Adapted from his stage play by Oscar-winning screenwriter Ronald Harwood, Quartet should have been better than it is. And because its topic is so appealingly offbeat, audiences may enjoy it more than it deserves. Set in a retirement home for opera singers and classical musicians, Quartet follows four residents as they prepare for a gala fundraiser. And because these faded stars are played by Tom Courtenay, Maggie Smith, Billy Connolly, and Pauline Collins, their contentious countdown to a standing ovation is enlivened with poignancy and humor. Add Michael Gambon as an imperious director and you’ve got a sure-fire crowd pleaser.
It’s just unfortunate that Dustin Hoffman, in his directorial debut, didn’t have quite enough confidence in the material (Harwood’s play was based on a beloved documentary, Tosca’s Kiss, about the real-life Casa Verdi retirement home in Milan). And so we get repeated scenes of roguish Wilf (Connolly) play-acting as womanizer, and too much reticence regarding dignified Reggie (Courtenay), and a cutesy attitude toward Cissy (Collins), an effervescent ditz who is sliding into dementia. Though Hoffman, at 75, certainly has empathy for these declining talents, only the considerable star power of the cast saves the characters from being one-note. This is especially noticeable with Jean (Smith), once a soprano superstar who is now in reduced circumstances and detached from her former glory. Jean gradually regains her diva confidence, mostly through Smith’s ability to bring on the brio.
Jean’s arrival at the stately home causes some welcome sparks of intrigue—though not for Reggie, her ex-husband. And so the Verdi quartet they performed together at the height of their careers, and that still has enough marquee stardust to make the home’s fundraiser gala a hit, is a show that may not go on after all. The plot is a bit wan, even for these mellow protagonists.
When the film does touch on the issue of greatness diminished by age, it does so gracefully. Connolly, who is too robust for his role, was a replacement for Albert Finney (Courtenay’s co-star in Harwood’s The Dresser), who dropped out due to failing health. Yet to Hoffman’s creative credit and the film’s benefit, elderly real-life opera singers and musicians fill most of the supporting roles, with acclaimed soprano Gwyneth Jones almost stealing the show as Anne, Jean’s only rival in fame and adulation.