The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - David Stratton

(M) ★★★★✩ Opens na­tion­ally on Box­ing Day

Lim­ited re­lease

A(PG) ★★

✩✩ T the age of 75, Dustin Hoff­man has di­rected his first movie. In 1967, when he was 30, Hoff­man’s por­trayal of im­ma­ture newly grad­u­ated Ben­jamin Brad­dock in The Grad­u­ate was an in­stant rev­e­la­tion, and was fol­lowed by mem­o­rable roles in Mid­night Cow­boy, Straw Dogs, Lenny (as co­me­dian Lenny Bruce), All the Pres­i­dent’s Men, Kramer vs. Kramer, Toot­sie, Rain Man and many oth­ers.

He is one of the finest Amer­i­can screen ac­tors of his gen­er­a­tion, but while some of his peers, in­clud­ing Clint East­wood, Jack Ni­chol­son, Woody Allen and War­ren Beatty, soon at­tempted to di­rect their own ma­te­rial, with vary­ing de­grees of success, Hoff­man did not. And now, when he’s fi­nally taken the plunge be­hind the cam­era, he’s taken it far from his nat­u­ral habi­tat in New York or Los An­ge­les; Quar­tet is a quintessen­tially Bri­tish film, set in a home for re­tired mu­si­cians some­where in the English coun­try­side.

The film is based on a play by Ron­ald Har­wood, who also wrote the screen­play, and the aim seems mainly to be to throw to­gether a bunch of in­ter­est­ing, ec­cen­tric characters in a con­fined space and see what hap­pens. It’s an un­de­ni­ably slim con­cept but, hap­pily, it turns out to be an al­most un­mit­i­gated de­light, thanks in no small part to the won­der­ful Bri­tish char­ac­ter ac­tors in­volved.

First and fore­most there’s Mag­gie Smith who, af­ter The Best Ex­otic Marigold Ho­tel and the tele­vi­sion se­ries Downton Abbey, has cor­nered the mar­ket in acer­bic old dames. She plays Jean Hor­ton, a re­tired star of the op­er­atic stage, ac­cus­tomed to adu­la­tion and re­spect and none too happy at hav­ing to end her days in Beecham House, named, as she notes, af­ter the cel­e­brated Bri­tish con­duc­tor, Sir Thomas Beecham (‘‘His fa­ther made lax­a­tives,’’ she quips drily, ‘‘ so nam­ing a nurs­ing home af­ter him seems apt.’’) Among the other res­i­dents at the home is Reg­gie Paget (Tom Courte­nay) who was once, very briefly, mar­ried to the im­pe­ri­ous Jean and who has, at first, no de­sire to re­new the re­la­tion­ship (‘‘I wanted a dig­ni­fied se­nil­ity,’’ he com­plains). Reg­gie came to the home orig­i­nally be­cause his friend Wilf Bond (Billy Con­nolly) had moved there af­ter suf­fer­ing a stroke that robbed him of his in­hi­bi­tions but, as it hap­pens, Jean, Reg­gie, Wilf and Cissy Rob­son (Pauline Collins), an­other res­i­dent, had once per­formed Verdi’s Rigo­letto to­gether. The pompous Cedric Liv­ing­stone (Michael Gam­bon), who or­gan­ises the home’s an­nual fundrais­ing con­cert, is con­vinced that if the four veter­ans can be per­suaded to re­visit their youth­ful tri­umph the in­sti­tu­tion’s cash­flow prob­lems will be solved. The prob­lem is to per­suade the four this is a good idea.

Aug­ment­ing this wisp of a plot are scenes in which th­ese sea­soned pro­fes­sion­als trade barbed quips with re­laxed and en­joy­able ex­per­tise. There’s noth­ing new here, but

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