There really is not much to say about Quartet, Dustin Hoffman's directorial debut (after the aborted late-1970s experience of Straight Time, taken over by Ulu Grosbard), other than it knows how to draw the best from its veteran cast in a way not many films can brag about these days. Mr. Hoffman gives the first-rate cast of British veterans the time and the space to create proper characters and imbue them with recognisable, lived emotions. It does sound like faint praise, I know; but while Quartet is hardly ever going to be anyone's idea of a classic film, not every film has to be a classic and a modest production that is fully aware of its limitations can be as enjoyable, if not more, than more ambitious projects.
That is certainly the case in this adaptation of his own play by the veteran Ronald Harwood (who was more inspired in Roman Polanski's The Pianist, among others), in essence a tale of coming to terms with one's past and age, set in a retirement home for performing artists. The central plot point is the arrival of retired diva Maggie Smith, and whether she will accept to perform in the home's fundraising gala the Rigoletto quartet she created with three other singers who are also guests at Beecham House: randy Scot Billy Connolly, sweet but ditzy Pauline Collins and, above all, her old flame Tom Courtenay, still bitter that she preferred her career over him. It's not much of a plot, but it works perfectly as a means to take a wistful look at how mistakes haunt you through the years and how you hope you can make up in some way for the errors of the past. And the stodginess of the plotting and the bromides about old age the story can throw are more than made up by the witty dialogue and the fully rounded nature of the central "quartet", gloriously brought to life by four remarkable actors.
With the help of John de Borman's ravishing widescreen cinematography, Mr. Hoffman makes the most out of his heritage settings but essentially trains his camera on the actors, making Quartet an actor's piece in the best possible sense of the word, and being rewarded with apparently effortless but extraordinarily subtle performances. Sometimes, that's all that's needed to make a film worthwhile.
Cast: Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins, Michael Gambon, Sheridan Smith, Andrew Sachs, Gwyneth Jones
Director: Dustin Hoffman
Screenplay: Ronald Harwood, based on his stage play Quartet
Cinematography: John de Borman (colour, widescreen)
Music: Dario Marianelli
Designer: Andrew McAlpine
Costumes: Odile Dicks-Mireaux
Editor: Barney Pilling
Producers: Finola Dwyer, Stewart Mackinnon (BBC Films, DCM Productions, Headline Pictures and Finola Dwyer Productions in association with Decca Music Group and Hanway Films)
United Kingdom/Germany, 2012, 98 minutes
Screened: DVD, Lisbon, April 27th 2013