Review: Great cast brings depth to likable 'Quartet'

Cissy (Pauline Collins), left, helps old friend Jean (Maggie Smith) adjust to life in a retirement home for musicians in "Quartet."

Photo by Kerry Brown, © 2012 The Weinstein Company. All Rights Reserved.

Cissy (Pauline Collins), left, helps old friend Jean (Maggie Smith) adjust to life in a retirement home for musicians in "Quartet."

Lifelong friends Wilf and Reggie, together with former colleague Cissy, are residents of Beecham House, a home for retired opera singers. Every year on Giuseppe ...

Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language and suggestive humor

Length: 97 minutes

Released: January 11, 2013 Limited

Cast: Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins, Sheridan Smith

Director: Dustin Hoffman

Writer: Ronald Harwood

More info and showtimes »

There aren't a lot of surprises in "Quartet," a handsome and likable comedy-drama aiming for the crowd that embraced "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" — with maybe some "Downton Abbey" junkies for good measure. The most surprising thing about the film is that it was directed by Dustin Hoffman.

For the quintessentially American Hoffman to make his directorial debut with a genteel story about British retirees doesn't immediately make a lot of sense. But the screenplay by Ronald Harwood ("The Pianist," "The Dresser"), adapted from his own play, focuses on something that must hit home somewhat with the 75-year-old Hoffman: When you have spent years at the top of your profession, is it permissible to continue at a lesser level?

"Quartet" doesn't go deep on the theme, but it does provoke thoughts about excellence and integrity, as well as what is lost when career trumps personal life. And though it's a piece of fluff compared with many of the films in which Hoffman has acted, it's fluff with a solid-gold cast: Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins and Michael Gambon, all of whom are more or less Hoffman's contemporaries.

And it does make sense that a consummate actor would want to direct other exceptional actors.

The acting makes "Quartet" seem better than it really is. The story is set at Beecham House, a home for retired musicians in the beautiful English countryside. For all of Beecham's grandeur, it's a destination for those who can't afford anything else, and the place operates on a shoestring budget that's getting tighter every day.

To help keep the place running, the residents put on an annual gala concert to celebrate the birthday of composer Giuseppe Verdi. Egotistical Cedric Livingston (Gambon) directs the show and tortures fellow residents with his rehearsals and meetings.

Reggie Paget (Courtenay), Wilf Bond (Connolly) and Cissy Robson (Collins) are three of the biggest names at Beecham. They're also great pals, dating back to their storied stint as three-fourths of an acclaimed operatic quartet.

Emotions rise when Jean Horton (Smith), the fourth member, who went on to have a brilliant career as a soloist, comes to live at Beecham. Reggie, who had a disastrous personal relationship with her, is furious that she has intruded upon his quiet life. Cedric is giddy over the idea of reuniting Jean with her old colleagues to encore their legendary "Rigoletto" quartet, which he sees as a huge draw for the gala. And Jean is upset at the mere thought of exposing the decline in her vocal prowess.

Smith and Courtenay are first rate as the former couple, but Connolly and Collins, as randy Wilf and flighty Cissy, steal the film. Nominally the comic relief, they provide poignancy to the proceedings, too.

Harwood's script skims over the darker side of old age — most problems are resolved within a scene or two. But for an escapist 98 minutes filled with great music and acting, "Quartet" is the ticket.

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