WHEN in his prime years as an actor, Dustin Hoffman was known to give grief to some of his directors over the minutiae of motivations and technique.
In making his directorial debut, Hoffman seems to be hedging his bets so he himself does not have to be overly bogged in sticky actorly confabulation. He works mostly with a contingent of old pros. And the story, scripted by Ronald Harwood (The Dresser) from his own 1999 play, is a not-especially-challenging drama about elderly musicians each facing the prospect of a final curtain call.
British setting notwithstanding, Hoffman, 75, would seem to be working in the comfort of his own wheelhouse.
Yet the movie generally rises above expectations induced by the film's especially dismal trailers.
The setting is Beecham House, a lush retirement centre for musicians where operatic grande dame Jean Horton (Maggie Smith) is obliged to move owing to dwindling finances.
Her entry causes much fuss and consternation, nowhere more than in the person of Reggie Paget (Tom Courtenay), her former partner in music and, oh so briefly, in marriage.
Jean is touchingly eager to put their past behind them, but Reggie still smarts from a decades-old wrong.
Meanwhile, the home's resident theatre director (Michael Gambon) has the brilliant idea of staging an in-house performance of the quartet from Verdi's Rigoletto. It would reunite the participants of a legendary performance by Jean, Reggie, mischievous Wilf (Billy Connolly) and the dotty ex-diva Cissy (Pauline Collins), now struggling with dementia issues.
The trailer suggests the future of the retirement centre is riding on the performance, but Hoffman wisely doesn't stress that obvious plot device. Indeed, Hoffman does an admirable job of cheating our expectations.
That doesn't mean the movie takes any dangerous risks. Befitting the milieu of an old-age home, Quartet is as mild as a cup of tea.
But occasionally, the tea is spiked. Connolly is largely responsible for this in his scene-stealing turn as Wilf, an old guy who can still command considerable charm if it gets him some apricot jam for his breakfast.
Maggie Smith does predictably good work holding the film's centre as an embattled diva in her dotage, but the film's real pleasure is found in the performance of Tom Courtenay. Reg speaks of his wishes to retreat to a sunset of "dignified senility" but his character is admirably engaged, not just in the past injustices of his personal life, but in all facets of music.
One anticipates Reg's lecture to a class of young students on the similarities of opera and hip-hop will be mortifying, but instead, it's rather astute.
And so it goes with Quartet. Expect something sentimental or maudlin and be surprised by its smarts, its dry wit and its taste.
Selected excerpts of reviews of Quartet.
"This is a lovely film directed with delicacy and taste, profoundly alive to the rhythms of its actors and characters, which gives its superlative British cast of stage and screen legends the time and space they deserve."
- Andrew O'Hehir, Salon
"Quartet falls into the common actor-turned-director trap of valuing the performances of fellow actors over all other aesthetic concerns. The film ... is a genial bore, full of underplayed drama and mildly frisky comedy."
- Scott Tobias, The AV Club
Starring Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay and Billy Connolly
3 stars out of five