Directed by Dustin Hoffman
Written by Ronald Harwood (play and screenplay)
In the directorial debut from legendary actor Dustin Hoffman, Quartet, there is a character named Cissy (Pauline Collins) who, in one of the film’s many moments of levity, quotes an old friend by saying that old age is not for sissies. The joke is not terribly good, but the intent of the line is well meaning and important. It hits home, in part at least, one of the central themes of Hoffman’s picture; that old age does not exclusively mean slowing down physically and sometimes mentally as well. The truth of the matter is that it means exactly those things and thus requires some courage to live through. With age comes wisdom and patience, not to mention that one’s particular skills do not necessarily evaporate, all depending of course on what those skills are. Although a struggle it may be at times, it is still very much possible to shine as brightly as one did years ago, provided one has the willpower and courage to embrace who they have become.
Quartet is set in the English countryside at a special residence for former artists from the country’s musical scene. Among the many colourful characters who spend their days laughing, eating and still practising what they love most of all are former opera singers Wilfred (Billy Connolly), a lighthearted if sexually charged fellow, the bashful Cissy, the more reserved and prudish Reginald (Tom Courtney) and the loud, boisterous and temperamental Cedric (Michael Gambon) who is hoping their upcoming concert will prove to be successful enough to earn the funds required for keeping the residence in operation for the following year. The arrival of the inimitable Jean (Maggie Smith), one of England’s finest opera singer (who never had less than twelve curtain calls, as she proudly vaunts) sets a special chain of events into motion, not the least because she and Reginald were once married long ago, therefore opening some deep wounds which time has failed to mend. Haste sometimes being a wonderful boost to creativity and imagination, Cedric concludes that a spectacular way to ensure the brilliance of the concert would be for Reginald, Wilfred, Cissy and Jean to perform their famous Quartet of an Italian opera much like they did when in their prime. Before that comes to fruition, the group must deal with Jean’s obstinate reluctance to partake in the affair.
One thing to note about this picture is the nature of the origin. Directly inspired by a stage play of the same name, Quartet is one of those complicated cinematic translations from a vastly different medium. Of all the potential sources from which a film project can be inspired, stage feels like the most distant cousin for its singular physical setting. Having not seen the play, it will be impossible for this reviewer to dare comparisons between the two, yet despite that, there are some moments in Quartet where it feels as though director Hoffman (which is a rather strange term to write considering that, at the age of 75, this is his very first movie!) struggles to tell its story with the fluidity required from such a light affair. Every now and then the film will throw in a curve ball which seemingly wants to lend the movie a degree of seriousness, as if it did not trust the overall narrative it has to share in the term place and whether its dramatic weight would suffice. A character the audience knew little about is dragged out on a stretcher after falling ill, another experiences a couple episodes of senility at the most inappropriate times apparently only because the movie felt like it was necessary to remind audiences that the protagonists are old people who must wrestle with serious physical and mental issues. It speaks to a lack of trust in the audience and in its own plot.
Additionally, Hoffman’s command of the more technical side of the filmmaking process might be put into question as well. Spending decades giving wonderful performances behind the camera will not automatically translate to directorial prowess behind it. It is neither the lighting nor the staging which can be put into question, those elements are just fine. The critical misstep is in the editing process. For a film about relatively slow moving people that transpires in and around a single house, there are a handful of scenes which are edited to death like the Paul Greengrass Jason Bourne films. That’s being facetious of course, although the comparison is not as far off some might imagine. There is one scene in particular, very early in the picture, that occurs in the dining room at breakfast time. Characters are sitting in groups of three or four at various tables and chatting amongst themselves. Rather than perhaps opt for some wide shots to limit the editing, Hoffman goes in close on the face of every single character who utters a word in the conversation and, presumably because of that decision, is subsequently compelled to cut every time. That scene, among several others, would have benefited from a much calmer editing pace. Hoffman’s hair might be grey, but as a director, he is still very green.
Not all is bad in Quartet. The most obvious reason to praise the film is the cast, who bring tremendous amounts of wit and charm to their story and their respective characters, which is all the more important when one realizes just how familiar the story is. Each of the four leads create distinct personalities that, while indeed lacking in originality themselves, add a lot of much needed fun to the endeavour. These are veteran actors, men and women who have accomplished a lot in their careers, working with average material. With a less accomplished cast, Quartet could be woefully boring, but thankfully audiences have the pleasure of witnessing Bill Connolly make inappropriately sexual comments towards Pauline Collins and the resident doctor Lucy Cogan (Sheridan Smith), Maggie Smith being too proud for her own good and Michael Gambon as a comically intimidating forced to be reckoned with as the upcoming event’s director. In fairness, there are some touching moments between Tom Courtney and Maggie Smith when Reginald and Jean confront their collective past and the personal pain each has suffered since their failed marriage. Once again, great acting can make these moments a pure joy to watch unfold. Rich moments such as those are unfortunately far and few between in Quartet.
Reading the press kit handed out at the screening, it was difficult to discern, amidst all the quotes from people involved in the project, why exactly it was translated from stage to screen. The clearest reason appeared to be…because those who partook in the original play wanted to. Part of the issues pertain to the story, others with Dustin Hoffman inexperience in the director’s chair. There surely was a way to make a better film based on the play, although that is not what viewers get here. Quartet is too many notes out of tune.