Movie Review

Elite British stars indulge in musical house party in ‘Quartet’

The story may be simple, but this quartet of stars performs with panache.

Updated: 2013-01-27T04:01:45Z

By JON NICCUM

Special to The Star

At the sumptuous Beecham House for elderly musicians, each room comes alive with the sounds of singing, brass, woodwinds, strings and petty bickering.

Performers do sport sizable egos, after all.

Like this retirement home on an English country estate, “Quartet” comes across as comfy, polished … and largely unthreatening. While the movie touches on issues of aging and self-worth, it’s really an excuse to gather some elite British actors and indulge in a musical house party, AARP-style.

The refrain of the tale (which screenwriter Ronald Harwood adapted from his own play) concerns “four of the finest singers in English operatic history.”

Wilf (Billy Connolly) is Beecham’s resident flirt. The perpetually horny Scotsman (is there any other kind in modern cinema?) recently suffered a stroke, which also left him without a filter for his running commentary. Or so he claims.

Best friend Reggie (Tom Courtenay) is the opposite: a stately type who spends days teaching school kids about opera but isn’t opposed to using rap music to connect to the class. Both men enjoy the company of the chipper Cissy (Pauline Collins), who is prone to whimsical forgetfulness.

The fourth singer arrives in the form of new resident Jean (Maggie Smith), a diva of legendary talent and arrogance. That she broke the heart of former husband Reggie further complicates matters.

“I wanted a dignified senility. Fat chance now she’s here,” Reggie says.

The four struggle to put aside their differences to sing the quartet from Giuseppe Verdi’s “Rigoletto” for a benefit gala that could help fund the house for another year.

Dustin Hoffman selected “Quartet” for his first directorial project since his uncredited work on 1978’s “Straight Time.” His low-key style meshes well with the breezy, talky material. Hoffman, 75, likely considers himself an “actor’s director” — he certainly gets ace performances from the mix of stage veterans and musicians who populate the cast.

But he and cinematographer John de Borman (“An Education”) also display a keen eye for visual composition. This is a well-shot film in subtle, tasteful ways.

Despite being a bit episodic for a stage-to-screen adaptation, the picture admirably celebrates British highbrow culture by grounding it in workmanlike reality. The rehearsals of these knighted performers seem no different from prep for a high school recital.

Eventually, the slice-of-life subplots give way to characters spending all their time persuading Jean to sing again. Her vanity remains elevated even when she realizes she can no longer hit all the soprano notes. But her participation seems a foregone conclusion, which kills some of the dramatic momentum.

The third act builds toward a soaring reunion that will bring the house down. Unfortunately, the stars are four actors, not opera singers, so the scene cuts just prior to that moment. It’s an ending more artsy than satisfying.

“Quartet” doesn’t aim high or dig deep. But from eavesdropping on fine musical collaborations to chuckling at Connolly’s rakish asides, it does offer some simple delights.

(At the Glenwood Arts and Tivoli.)

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