By Joan Ellis
How often do you see a nearly perfect movie? Quartet is just that.
First credit goes to Dustin Hoffman who exploded into our movie lives 46 years ago as The Graduate. Now, at 75 in his first effort behind the camera, he has directed a good story with great sensitivity and an uncanny sense of timing.
In Beecham House, a home for retired musicians, Hoffman knows exactly how long to stay with sadness, loss or wit when lingering would have been overkill. His quick cuts among emotions move the story along quickly as the principal players reveal themselves. He navigates perfectly a script by Ronald Harward that is full of arrows to both the funny bone and the heart.
To interpret this grand combination, add a cast that knows exactly what to do with the material. The residents of the retirement home are played by actual musicians with strong careers behind them. I only wish their short bios had been shown at the beginning instead of in the ending credits. Throughout the movie they stroll the beautiful lawn, play the music they love and indulge in the politics and emotions inherent in any gathering.
With the approach of Verdi’s birthday, Cedric (Michael Gambon) is directing a gala that will honor the composer and raise money for Beecham House. He chooses as his showstopper four opera singers world famous as the quartet from “Rigoletto.” The four professional actors who fill these roles are flawless. Together they make the movie soar.
Wilf (Billy Connoly) is the resident flirt with a smart remark who steps close to the line but never crosses it. Cissy (Pauline Collins) is the warm friend with good intentions who is just a mite out of touch with reality. Reggie (Tom Courtenay) is the serious, contained man with a sad secret. Jean (Maggie Smith) is the fabled singer who arrives on a wave of reluctance and sprinkles her grumpiness widely throughout The Beecham. Her arrival ignites an inspired sparring match among the four leads that alternates beautifully between comedy and loss.
Loss is a strong thread in this story. These musicians who have so loved their art during successful careers, have already faced the loss of performing by the time they come to The Beecham. The movie offers a real understanding of the loss of the gift of talent to old age. They have a bit more to lose than the rest of us.
Within the parameters of these givens, the primary quartet doesn’t waste a second. As the world’s master of the pause, Maggie Smith can wring laughter from the hardest heart. Tom Courtenay, so dignified even as he thaws in the presence of the secret that has saddened him for so long, is the perfect foil for Maggie Smith. As a team, the four leads are as perfectly in tune with each other in old age as their characters once were as the quartet in “Rigoletto.” Please, just go.
Joan Ellis’ address on the Internet, which contains her review library, is JoanEllis.com.