Entertainment Movies

Monday 27 March 2017

Foursome of stars sing for supper

Paul Whitington


(12A, general release, 98 minutes)

Director: Dustin Hoffman Stars: Maggie Smith, Billy Connolly, Tom Courtenay, Michael Gambon


This polite, charming and mildly amusing comic drama may mark Dustin Hoffman's directorial debut, but if his name wasn't on the credits you'd never guess it.

Because his frenetic charisma is nowhere visible in a very British film that takes few risks and yields no surprises. At least Hoffman, a notoriously precious actor, gives his heavyweight cast ample room to manouvre, and Maggie Smith and Billy Connolly, in particular, provide what slim pleasures Quartet has to offer.

Smith is Jean Horton, a once-legendary opera diva who at the start of the film leaves her palatial London apartment for the comparative ignominy of a rural retirement home.

I say comparative, because Beecham House is the Savoy Hotel of old folks' homes, a palatial manor with splendid grounds, plush private rooms, good food and eager, perpetually hovering staff.

It also seems to be a favoured spot with retired opera stars, because when Jean gets there she's confronted with several ghosts from her illustrious past.

Wilfred (Connolly), Cecily (Pauline Collins) and Reginald (Tom Courtenay) all starred with Horton in prestigious Covent Garden productions, but are not uniformally pleased to see her.

Reginald is especially put out, as Jean broke his heart during their brief but disastrous marriage. Like practically every other character Smith has ever played, Jean is a bit of a harpy when the mood is on her, and repels Cecily's initial friendly advances with witheringly unkind putdowns. Reg, of course, wants nothing to do with her, but Wilfred suspects that his friend still loves her, and sets about reuniting them through the medium of song.

Based on a play of the same name by Ronald Harwood, Quartet opts for a soft focus and relentlessly sentimental take on the tricky business of ageing.

Billy Connolly's character might have a mildly dicky ticker, and the odd inmate may get trundled off to the nearest hospital for an urgent tune-up now and then, but overall being an old person is a doddle in this film.

In fact, Jean looks so hale you wonder what she's doing in the retirement home in the first place.

Smith, though, dominates with her usual wry charisma, Connolly is good fun as an ageing ladies' man, as is Michael Gambon playing a histrionic director.

Hoffman's direction, meanwhile, seems to have been cowed by such prestigious company, and Quartet might have been more interesting if it had actually tackled the subject of old age and – dare we mention it – death. But it's perfectly watchable, and even enjoyable in a wispy and forgettable sort of way.

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