Quartet seems like an odd choice for Dustin Hoffman’s official directorial debut. It’s a quiet film set in England, with a cast slanted towards Hoffman’s age demographic. Hoffman, who began directing 1978’s Straight Time but relinquished the responsibility after production began to focus on his starring role, doesn’t really need an auspicious debut at age 76 as much as one to be proud of, and he should be proud of his work on this story about the occupants of a home for retired musicians. Quartet has cross-generational appeal, and imparts genuine feel-good warmth in lieu of a contrived life-affirmation message. It makes getting older look fun.
Billy Connolly’s mischievous Wilfred helps set the tone from the get-go, although Tom Courtenay, who plays Wilfred’s quiet friend Reginald, was the prime mover in getting Ronald Harwood’s play adapted for the screen. Cissy (Pauline Collins) is also a resident of Beecham House, which is abuzz about an upcoming fund-raising production supervised by flamboyant Cedric (Michael Gambon). The show should keep Beecham in the black for a year or two, which is good news since the home is still taking in new arrivals, such as former A-list singing star Jean (Maggie Smith).
Jean still sees herself through the eyes of critics, producers and fans, so she has trouble at first adapting to the art-for-art’s-sake attitudes of Wilfred and company. She’s also Roger’s ex-wife, and used to be part of a vocal quartet with him, Wilfred and Cissy. So besides the let’s-put-on-a-show theme, Roger suffers angst as the former friends try to convince Jean to sing again. Hoffman’s sensitivity to actors and the resulting performances keeps the film from veering into mawkish territory (à la The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), which allows the optimism of the characters to shine through and provides an inspiration for how to handle life’s third act.