Conventional wisdom—and far too many examples to mention—suggest that when a veteran actor finally steps behind the camera, the result is usually a very “actor-ly” piece. You’d expect something that showcased performances, rather than kinetic pacing or unusual stylistic experiments. Actors would get the chance for long, sustained scenes to show off their chops. In other words, you’d expect a play recorded on film.
Quartet—Dustin Hoffman’s first directing feature—is indeed based on a stage play by Ronald Harwood. And that turns out to be one of the most baffling things about it, since it’s hard to comprehend how this thing ever had enough substance to amount to more than a one-act piece.
Based on a real-life English location, Quartet is set at a country retirement home for professional musicians and operatic singers called Beecham House. Among the residents are a trio of longtime colleagues and friends: reserved Reggie Paget (Tom Courtenay), often-inappropriate Wilf Bond (Billy Connolly) and ditzy Cissy Robson (Pauline Collins). The peaceful sameness of their lives—periodically punctuated by the challenging realities of aging—is interrupted by a new arrival. Jean Horton (Maggie Smith) was one of England’s great operatic divas—but she also has a history with Reggie that he’s not at all happy about revisiting.
Ah, the incipient drama in that setup; surely there will be plenty of tension as Reggie and Jean negotiate the awkwardness of being stuck in the same place together. Indeed, there are a few effective scenes for Courtenay to play deeply wounded, though Smith’s imperiousness feels like a bad fit for Jean’s attempts at making peace. The deeper problem, though, is that this seemingly central conflict is almost immediately resolved. We learn of a long-ago, very brief marriage between Reggie and Jean, followed by years of avoidance by Reggie, yet they very quickly achieve a kind of détente. So much for rich character drama.
That’s also characteristic of the way Quartet handles virtually every potential conflict and plot point. Wilf—still hampered by the effects of a stroke—has a brief episode that seems to portend trouble to come, only it doesn’t. Cissy similarly struggles with the early stages of dementia, and at various points appears on the verge of slipping into a state that will deeply complicate matters, except that it never does. While the ravages of age are a frequent topic of conversation among characters in Quartet, the film itself appears to be scared to death of confronting them head-on in a way that viewers might find too uncomfortable.
What that leaves for Hoffman is a whole lot of space to fill as pleasantly and non-threateningly as possible. And therefore: Montage time! The bucolic scenery surrounding Beecham House easily could have received third billing in the credits for all the footage it lands. The residents engage in various hobbies and pastimes, along with rehearsals and impromptu performances of music and song. Quartet even manages to find padding in Reggie’s community-outreach lecture to a group of teenagers, in which he comes to appreciate the poetry of hip-hop to no apparent narrative purpose. Rarely has the need to fill up screen time felt so much like nothing more than the need to fill up screen time.
The third act of Quartet focuses on a “let’s put on a show” angle, as Jean’s erstwhile colleagues try to convince her—against her fears of performing publicly and showing her age-diminished voice—to participate in a benefit concert needed to help save the financially struggling Beecham House. But the film is about as willing to delve seriously into Jean’s clinging to her former glory as it is willing to delve seriously into anything, which is not at all. Only Connolly’s bombastic energy—playing the latest variation on “isn’t it hilarious when someone over the age of 60 says anything sexual”—lifts the proceedings from mildly diverting torpor.
We don’t even get to hear the concert to which everything has been building; will these struggling, once-great artists do themselves proud? We’ll never know. But the trees … can Dustin Hoffman please show us more of the trees?
Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly