Your monkey on Dustin Hoffman’s Quartet

February 15, 2013

Grade: 87
Cast: Maggie Smith, Billy Connolly, Tom Courtenay, Pauline Collins, Michael Gambon
Director: Dustin Hoffman
Rating: PG-13, for language
Running time: 98 minutes

More than a decade ago, Dustin Hoffman told me that whenever you see a poor performance onscreen you should blame the director more than the actor.

Because, he explained, the director is the one who chose that particular performance from all the possible takes the actor had given him. And if the director had no reasonably good performances to choose from, well, it was still his fault. For he had hired a lousy actor.

The 75-year-old Hoffman does not make that mistake with Quartet, the lightweight but high quality project that marks his directorial debut. If nothing else, the rookie director has surrounded himself with state of the art professionals, including a cast of easy-to-watch British national treasures and the playwright/screenwriter Ronald Harwood (The Pianist, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) who has adapted his own play into a snappy screenplay. It’s probably unfair to say that all Hoffman needed to do was to call “action” and get out of the way, but it seems obvious a lot of preparation went into the film.

It’s a happy coincidence that Quartet arrives in local theaters the same weekend as Michael Haneke’s stern Amour — both movies are about characters of a certain age, the sort of chaarcters that, when Hollywood bothers with them at all, are usually presented as doddering sentimental creatures, toothless and benign. But here, as in the very different Amour, the eldery have their agendas, their wishes and intrigues. Quartet is a comedy, but there’s nothing silly or inane about it, and the four principal players — the quartet of the title — crackle with energy and wit.

The film is set in an upscale retirmernt home for classical musicians, a tribe of show people who once populated the world’s great orchestras or sang arias. The denizens of the home — a great house that’s reminiscent of the Yorkshire estate featured on Downton Abby — are worldly people who enjoyed glamorous — if not necessarily lucrative — careers. They still make music, and much of the money that sustains the home comes from an annual Verdi’s birthday performance (produced with high flamboyant by a bathrobed impresario played — without much shame — by Michael Gambon).

When the residents become aware that Jean (Maggie Smith) , a legendary diva, will soon be joing them, they become excited about the prospect of having her reunite with her old colleagues Wilf (Bill Connolly), Cissy (Pauline Collins) and Reggie (Tom Courtenay) to perform Rigoletto, a work they’d recorded years before. But the plans are complicated by Jean’s professed disinterest in singing and the fact that she and Reggie were once married, a union that dissolved in bitter acrimony.

You might guess at how the dillemma is resolved, and you would probably be right, but the fun of the piece comes from the impeccable timing of the players, and the way they are able to communicate pages of information with a glance. Courtenay is wonderful as a wounded but reserved man who has papered over a deep wound with a very British dignity. Connolly’s Wilf has suffered a mild stroke that has freed him from his inhibitions — but while a lesser actor might come off a lecherous boor, Connolly manages to both endear himself and break our hearts. Collins’ mildly demented Cissy was probably always a bit of a ditz — or at least one of those shrewd women who find it useful to play the ditz. And Maggie Smith — well, at this point she’s more like a special effect than an actor; she raises her eyebrow and somehow simultaneously conveys a kind of all-seeing cluelessness.

There is a melancholy sweetness to the production, which will appeal to moviegoers who found The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel to their taste. But this is more than just another movie for an underserved demographic, it’s a bagatelle of extraordinary charm. I don’t know whether Hoffman considers it a warm-up exercise or not, but he’s hit the right notes in the right order in the right time.

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