It would be easy to dismiss Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut, Quartet, as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel without elephants, but with Maggie Smith. In fact, I freely admit that I’ve described it that way ever since I saw it back when those merry pranksters known as the Weinsteins thought this admittedly tony production had award potential and got it into critic groups before voting deadlines. Then — as only the Weinsteins will — they turned around and held it for an early January release. (Now that February is upon us, it comes to Asheville.) But all that aside, Quartet is a film of great, if slender, charms — a movie that will almost certainly find its audience among persons “of a certain age” (and, yes, that includes me). It’s the sort of movie that ought to go over with all those folks (you know who you are) who will flock to anything with Judi Dench in it — though this film very much lacks Judi Dench. (And in all candor, there’s no place she’d really fit in this film.)
Yes, Quartet lacks the weightiness of theme and diversity of characters found in Marigold Hotel. None of Quartet‘s stories resonate like Tom Wilkinson’s in Marigold Hotel, and the apparent single gay character (in a home for old musical performers?) being Michael Gambon as a snobbish old caftan queen director feels a little false. (Even though Gambon steals every scene he’s in.) This stands out more than it might if one of the main characters, Wilf Bond (Billy Connolly), wasn’t so obsessively priapic whenever he’s even close to a younger woman. Plus, let’s be honest, the specter of death is kept unrealistically at bay here, making the film a little too cozy for its own good. And the whole putting-on-a-show-to-save-the-home-financially? Well, it gets very close to a geriatric Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney movie from 70 years ago.
Now, we’ve got all the film’s less glorious aspects out of the way. So let’s pause for a bit to look at all the things that make Quartet a good — even special — little movie. We can, of course, start with the cast, which would be hard to beat. At the head of the list is the always wonderful Maggie Smith as the aging diva, Jean Horton, who has fallen on hard financial times and is forced to take up residency — albeit with star status — at the Thomas Beecham House. Of course, it turns out that she’s well-known to many of the other residents, notably Wilf, Cissy Robson (Pauline Collins) and most of all, Reginald Paget (Tom Courtenay). In fact, it turns out that Jean was once married to Reg — until she cheated on him, a transgression he’s never gotten over. All of the performers here are exemplary. But what else did you expect with this cast? And Smith — in a very different role than the one she had in Marigold Hotel — is simply splendid. Watching them would make the film worthwhile by itself.
But that’s not all. Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut (yeah, I know he directed parts of 1978’s Straight Time without credit) is assured in its effortlessness. It would be easy to say that he didn’t really need to do more than point his camera at the stars and let them go. Even setting aside the probability that he had something to do with those performances, there’s pointing the camera and knowing how and where to point a camera. Hoffman clearly knows how and where. He is also probably the force behind the decision to ultimately leave the big performance moment an off-screen event. Some people have objected to this — and judging by one of the stills, more footage was shot than appears in the film — but when you get to the end of the film, consider the alternative and then tell me what else could Hoffman have done. By the way, hang around for the credits and take note of how many elderly musicians appeared in supporting roles. Rated PG-13 for brief strong language and suggestive humor.
Playing at Carolina Cinemas