Dustin Hoffman (“Meet the Parents”) can put a spark of magic in anything. Watch his first couple movies and you’ll see a young, passionate actor poised to ascend to the heights of Hollywood. His more recent roles reveal a man totally confident in his ability to explore different characters. In his interviews, he’s calm; On the red carpet, he’s gregarious; In his personal life, he’s a devoted activist. Now, in his directorial debut “Quartet,” Hoffman salutes the work of other great entertainers, offering an inspiring glimpse into old age.
Maggie Smith (“Harry Potter” series) delivers a stellar performance as Jean Horton, an aging operatic singer who moves to the Beecham House retirement home to be with other musical talents. While her fervor for music and the opera still burns, she is reluctant to brandish her own talent in the company of some of her former fellow performers. Among her old acquaintances, and also retirees at Beecham, are Cissy (Pauline Collins, “Shirley Valentine”), Wilfred (Billy Connolly, “Brave”) and ex-husband Reginald (Tom Courtenay, “The Dresser”). After lamenting over lost love, abandoned talent and the challenges of age, the four reconcile their differences and form a quartet for the House’s charity performance.
While “Quartet” may be sprinkled with superficial charm, it is, at the same time, a layered story of nostalgia and retrospection. Each resident possesses seasoned wit that neither bites nor backs into shame. Each talented retiree is given an illustrious backstory that is filled with tales of the golden age of opera, recollections of short romantic flings and praise for early ambition. Many of the backstories intermingle, in fact, which proves to be an interesting point of interaction for some of the characters (Jean and Reginald especially) who hope to reawaken the excitement they once felt during their careers.
Movement plays a key role — both in terms of the retired residents and in the film itself. The fictional Beecham House is, in reality, an old royal estate that sits in the celestial English countryside. Several camera shots of the structure’s faded exterior and a few scenes from different areas of the grounds add a strong visual dimension to the film’s only location. As for the residents, since they are largely restricted in movement, the film focuses on personal microcosms and examines the singular memories of aging musicians and performers.
The film’s signature statement — declaration, rather — is made by Wilfred in a conversation he has with Reginald. The two are talking of art and the fruits of performance as they reminisce over a cup of coffee. After a short break in the conversation, Wilfred reflects that though their talents and careers are very different, one thing has been made very obvious: While Reginald is an artist, Wilfred is an artisan. Wilfred has had to constantly work at being talented. He’s had to mold his own way to stardom. And what’s truly beautiful about this sentiment — what makes it ring true time and again throughout the film — is that no matter how far we’ve strayed from who we might have been in the past, we’ll always have the things we love in the present to help us shape who we want to be in the future.