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