An ebullient encore not only for its central foursome — Tom Courtenay, Pauline Collins, Billy Connolly and Maggie Smith — but also for the distinguished musicians who comprise the rest of the ensemble, “Quartet” shows retirement hasn’t diluted the drama one bit at a rest home for old stage-folk. Though never the sort of actor who “really wanted to direct,” Dustin Hoffman picked the right piece of material with which to make the leap, adapting Ronald Harwood’s 1999 play with the sort of thesp-friendly generosity that makes the performances really sing, assuring yet another hit among the “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” crowd.
Aimed squarely at auds seasoned enough to remember Smith and Michael Gambon’s pre-“Harry Potter” career highs — namely, those aware that Smith made another “Quartet” for Merchant Ivory 30 years ago — this production celebrates the vitality of those whose time in the spotlight has passed, casting a handful of legends who are still going strong in their eighth decades. Old flames are rekindled when once-massively popular opera star Jean Horton (Smith), arrives at Beecham House, where ex-husband Reginald (Courtenay) had hoped to find “a dignified senility.”
Though Jean’s arrival excites the other residents — apart from a Norma Desmond-like longtime rival (Gwyneth Jones) — it reopens deep wounds for Reginald, cuckolded a mere nine hours after his wedding. The specter of that betrayal haunts their reunion, though Smith and Courtenay are such gifted thesps, the damage and remorse they each feel emanates even when the characters are apart, tempered on both sides by seemingly unyielding walls of pride.
The film’s scant plot plays second fiddle to Hoffman and Harwood’s nuanced exploration of love so long unrequited, as evidenced by the fact it takes more than an hour of screen time for the Beecham regulars to convince Jean to join them in an annual fundraising concert. Their plan hinges on Jean reuniting with Reginald, Cissy (Collins, amiably dotty) and Wilf (Connolly) to perform Verdi’s “Rigoletto” together once more. But there’s more than squandered romance at stake in Jean’s decision. The star soloist is fully aware that her prime has past and would prefer to be remembered for the voice she once had — a voice she sometimes revisits by listening to vinyl recordings of past triumphs in the privacy of her room.
In this respect, “Quartet” is attuned to the way that performers cope with the return to obscurity that so often awaits at the end of their careers. The seed of Harwood’s play sprang from this notion, inspired by the documentary “Tosca’s Kiss,” which collects the memories of former opera singers living out their days in a dedicated retreat Verdi himself established more than a century ago.
This crowd-pleasing adaptation assembles a comparably starry ensemble, whose accomplishments are recounted via an end-credits slideshow.
Reminiscent of “Gosford Park” in that there always seems to be something going in the adjoining room or just beyond the edges of the frame, “Quartet” convincingly transforms Hedsor House in Taplow, England, into a bustling anthill of geriatric activity.
With an assist from Dario Marianelli’s effusive score, Scottish comic Connolly supplies much of the pic’s charisma, playing a singer whose recent stroke has eliminated the last of his inhibitions. Just saucy enough to delight the target aud without crossing the line, the outspoken Wilf offers a running commentary throughout, antagonizing the other residents when he’s not shamelessly flirting with the head doctor (Sheridan Smith).
Between Jean and Reginald’s long-simmering feelings and Wilf’s colorful antics, “Quartet” offers a spirited portrait of souls who, when that final curtain-call comes, intend to go singing, dancing and swearing into that good night.