Film review: Quartet

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‘OLD age is no place for sissies,” Bette Davis once said.

Quartet (12A)

Director: Dustin Hoffman

Running time: 94 minutes

* * *

And it’s no accident that the quote is paraphrased in Quartet, a film with a decidedly soft spot for cantankerous divas. After all, one of the leads is Maggie Smith, the Queen Mother of the lofty eye-roll and withering retort.

On the other hand, behind the camera is Dustin Hoffman, an actor whose own reputation has arced over 50 years from driven perfectionist to avuncular Santa Claus.

The result is a gentle love letter to elderly thespians who are still hanging tough in the face of old age, with all its physical challenges. Hoffman’s pacing may be a bit leisurely, but for its core audience there’s plenty of time to enjoy a gentle story about third acts.

Set in a de luxe retirement home for musicians, Quartet is based around a group of singers preparing for their annual showcase of old skills. If a famed opera quartet can reunite for the first time in years, they may even save their home from closure, but their star voice Jean Horton (Smith) refuses to sing, preferring to be remembered for the voice she once had.

Quartet gives each of its four leads a storyline to pursue, some more ambitious than others. As Cissy, Pauline Collins is stuck with a form of dementia that is two steps away from dizzy blonde, without any of the anger that is often linked to the disease, but at least Maggie Smith has been given a more vulnerable version of the acid dowagers she’s been essaying in Downton Abbey and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

Lord knows what his opera voice is like, but Billy Connolly is also at home as Wilf, whose uninhibitedly dirty chat-ups are supposed to be the result of a stroke, which fortuitously allows Connolly to bend a fruity bon mot about “seasoned wood” whenever the movie needs a vulgar goosing.

The most substantive role belongs to Tom Courtenay as Reggie, the mesto note in the film, who tries to bridge the generation gap by teaching local schoolkids about the relationship between opera and rap, but can’t bring himself to get past the hostility he feels towards his ex-wife Jean.

Plotwise, it’s all about as tense as a tea cosy, especially since Hoffman and cinematographer John de Borman are a little too fond of meaningful sunsets. On the other hand, I liked his digressions into old rivalries and showcasing of still-got-it virtuosity.

The result is a smoothly crafted, inoffensive movie that makes use of top-drawer British treasures. Maybe there’s an older audience out there which also feels under-served and in need of tempered optimism and a spiritual tune-up. «

General release from Tuesday