I watched Quartet a week or so ago for two main reasons: Maggie Smith and Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut.

The story follows four retired opera singers living in a home for retired musicians, mostly from or of the operatic persuasion. It is a gentle study of how they deal with the slow loss of their faculties, particularly their singing voices, and the perceived loss of their value due to the loss of their youth, which is so treasured in most performing arts.

Refusing to go gently into that good night, as Dylan Thomas famously wrote, the musicians are busy making music throughout the movie and the Quartet (see the characters described below) is gearing up to perform their highly-successful and legendary version of Verdi’s Rigoletto for a charity event.

Based on a play by Ronald Harwood (of ‘The Pianist’ fame), who also wrote the movie adaptation, it is set in the stunning 12th-century Hedsor House in Buckinghamshire, England. This Georgian estate is now used for conferences, weddings, etc. Throughout the movie, there are such stunning views of the grounds, the internal architecture, and the lovely gardens that it makes you want to go there in person (although I’m not sure they do tours unless you’re having an event there).

Maggie Smith plays Jean, the famous former diva, who has given up singing/performing entirely and has to be coaxed into it by the rest of the quartet that she once performed with. Smith does not fail to disappoint with her withering words and trademark looks that speak more volumes than the words. I won’t tell you more of the story, but, let me just say that, as the main arc/conflict of the story, her initial reluctance and subsequent capitulation fell somewhat flat for me — unconvincing plot device, really.

Billy Connolly, as Wilf, plays his characteristic “lovable dirty old man”, flirting with all women of all ages, indulging all his vices, etc. But, yes, he did provide most of the laughs in the movie and was not entirely a pain to watch.

Pauline Collins, a highly-underrated actress these days (in my opinion), plays Cissy, a somewhat ditzy character, mostly due to an Alzheimer’s-like ailment. But, she’s lovely to watch: full of joy and charm conveyed in a thoroughly plausible manner.

Tom Courtenay (who I loved in The Loneliness of the Long-distance Runner and as Pasha in Doctor Zhivago), plays Jean’s ex-husband, Reg. The best scenes with him are when he is giving a bunch of teen school-kids lessons in opera though they are more interested in hip-hop, rap, etc. There’s a moment when he understands them and they understand him, and there is an unspoken sort of mutual acknowledgment, even admiration. His scenes with Maggie Smith are also touching. These are two masters of their craft, no question.

Michael Gambon was the surprise treat for me as I didn’t expect him to show up. Show up he did, and how. As the cantankerous former director, Cedric (pronounced “Cee-dric”, if you please). Let me repeat myself: he was an absolute treat. I wish he’d had more screen time, particularly with Maggie Smith. I would watch an entire movie with just these two characters sitting in a room and sparring with each other over pretty much anything — say, the price of rice.

So, did Hoffman succeed as a first-time director? I think he did remarkably well and wonder why he left getting into directing so long (instead, acting in movies like those Fockers series — I could not even bear the trailers). The jewel-like cast, as you will agree, could not have been better. Their setting was perfect. The story could have been a bit more substantial. Anyway, here’s hoping Hoffman, like Eastwood, gets the directorial bug bad and creates more such movies where his generation gets decent opportunities to keep their craft alive. I would watch them, for sure.

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