Much ado has been made that with “Quartet,” Dustin Hoffman makes his directorial debut. But it should also be noted that “Quartet” is well-written and has terrific performances from its lead and supporting casts.
Written by Ronald Harwood (based on his play), “Quartet” takes place in a retirement home for musicians in England. The focal point of the opening scenes are with residents Wilf Bond (Billy Connolly), Cissy Robson (Pauline Collins), Reginald Paget (Tom Courtenay) and other members of the community as they plan their annual fund-raising gala, a tribute to Verdi, under the “supervision” of Cedric Livingston (Michael Gambon). The film takes it time, perhaps a tad too much time, in these opening scenes, and one wouldn’t be faulted for asking, “Where is all this leading?” However, the relaxed pacing does allow for a better understanding of some of the main characters. We learn that Wilf had a stroke, from which he has recovered physically, although mentally his ability to self-censor has diminished. And through her actions we realize that Cissy is suffering from the early stages of dementia.
The tempo picks up considerably when famous retired opera singer Jean Horton (Maggie Smith) arrives unhappily in their midst. Turns out she was very briefly married to Reginald, who has never gotten over his feelings of love for and betrayal by her. This leads to some terrific scenes between Smith and Courtenay. Jean was also friends with Wilf and Cissy and we learn that many years earlier Cissy, Wilf, Reginald and Jean, together, performed Verdi’s Rigoletto Quartet. Will they perform this one more time for the gala even though Jean has refused to sing in public for many years?
Dustin Hoffman has assembled an outstanding supporting cast, all of whom do their own singing, dancing and playing of musical instruments. Most haven’t performed in public in years, but you would never know it. They are a wonder to behold.
As for the leads, they are remarkable. Billy Connelly’s Wilf seems one note (no pun intended) at first…trying too hard to be a scamp. But then we gets the sense that there is more going on than meets the eye and his performance begins to make sense. Pauline Collins’ Cissy is a hard character to pull off, but she manages in spectacular fashion. Tom Courtenay has an understated role; however, he is perfect in it. We feel the hurt and pain he has suffered over the years. And finally there is Maggie Smith…funny, fearful and outspoken. She’s simply terrific.
Maybe it takes an uncompromising actor in his own right to get the most out of his players as a director. If so, let’s hope Hoffman has a few more pictures up his sleeve.