July 6, 2013
Quartet, directed by Dustin Hoffman, tipped-toed in and out of theaters, almost as quietly as Dustin has slipped off the marquee as a leading man.
But he has not left the scene. In the autumn of 2011, he arrived in England with a movie-script-via-stage-play by Ronald Harwood, and with a plan that reinvigorated a community of gifted senescent musicians who had been dismissed from the stage, and were ecstatic to reappear in the Hoffman encore.
Beecham House - a fancy fictitious retirement residence for musical headliners - is home to a famous quartet of opera singers played by Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins and recent arrival, diva Maggie Smith. The plot pivots around Smith's tangled relationship with ex-husband and co-resident Courtenay, and the home's impending closure if Maggie is not convinced to reunite with the trio to perform Verdi's Rigoletto at Beecham's annual musical gala benefit.
Strangely, the gala staging is reminiscent of an elementary school talent show with the curtains parting for each recital appearance. And its small audience of family and friends is not filled with rich donors buying substantive tickets that would be required to resuscitate this glorious estate with its posh rooms and plush gardens.
But by suspending reality for the sake of enjoying fine performances by aging award winning actors and veritable musicians, we can wallow in Hoffman's elation in commemorating Verdi's lyrical arts and his celebration of these venerable veteran gifted professionals.
Maggie Smith is not the laser-tounged wit from Downton Abbey, but a retired demanding prima donna from opera. Her long-gone 9-hour failed marriage to Tom Courtenay is the burr irritating any plans for the fragile comfort befitting their golden years.
Actress Pauline Collins could have saccharinized the movie had not funnyman Billy Connolly injected his comic horny madness to the story.
The character actor and flamboyantly garbed Michael Gambon enriched the co-plot as he irascibly guides geriatric residents towards the impending performance.
While none of these fine actors needed to stretch to support Harwood's script, they all resurrected their inimitable talents to make a sweet movie.
Now for anyone who assumes that this is a movie about old farts or for old farts, you are mistaken. It is a movie about young-at-heart-farts who have been around longer and who can now best express the cartwheels of their youth with their faces - not their limbs.
You can be a fan of World War Z, The Heat or Iron Man 3 and still enjoy the seasoned subtleties of these actors, morphing constantly to express nuances that words fail. The pleasure in this movie is the combined gusto of fine acting and music.
Like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, (the other Maggie Smith retirement film), Quartet is the equivalent of the slow cooking movement - depicting life slow enough to savor it, versus the fast food of computer-generated action flicks. If you want to take a break from the macho (and macha) summer madness that has filled most mall theaters, this Blu-ray DVD is one for curling up on the couch - comfort food for the family, (except for Dame Maggie Smith's two unexpected f-expletives.)
And for the fun of seeing Hoffman return to film in this new role as director.
The Extras begin with the tedious, boring, unuttered, hackneyed question - "What did you think about working with the director?" The uber-accomplished treasures of British theater (Smith, Courtenay, Connolly, Collins and Gambon) recited the same-old-same-old back-slap-trap of banal kudos for the director - this time it's Hoffman.
The segment wasted time and talent on what could have been an exceptional and unique opportunity. (I'm saying change the query to "How was working with director Hoffman, a classical American actor? How did he add a different sensibility to the British set? To the experience making this film? To your experience as a performer? To the final cut of the film?")
Hoffman, however, did answer another important question: why did he choose to shoot in England? His flippant answer: too many surgically sculpted senior stars to find this cast in the U.S.
For the expanded version of Hoffman's response, you must listen to the director's run-along-commentary. He was invigorated by the cross-continental collaboration between peers. He was energized by reviving the waning careers of so many extraordinary British talents, many of whom had not been seen or heard by the public for 25, 30 or 40 years. And he was exhilarated by surrounding himself with musicians and singers - most of whom had never performed as actors - but whose love for music mirrored his own.
Hoffman, as revealed, is a jazz musician and this was, for him, a celebration of music. He exudes a personal joy in every shot of the film. And the movie radiates a reciprocal joy in the performances.
Everyone played music live and Hoffman wanted live-alive-living lines. As he said, his job was to keep everyone from acting, to keep the dialogue natural and real - like their music.
And for those film-fans who love following cinematic careers, this one is another dimension and a new chapter of an American favorite - Dustin Hoffman.
Studio: Anchor Bay Entertainment, BBC Films & The Weinstein Company
Director: Dustin Hoffman
Cast: Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins, Michael Gambon, Sheridan Smith, Andrew Sachs, Gwyneth Jones, Trevor Peacock, David Ryall, Michael Byrne, Ronnie Fox
Length: 98 minutes
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
DTS Digital Surround 5.1
English SDH and Spanish