BY MICHAEL SMITH World Scene Writer
Thursday, February 14, 2013
2/14/13 at 7:17 AM
There is a cozy, comfortable feel to "Quartet" custom-made for a mature audience. It's enough to make them wish that Beecham House, a home for retired musicians and performers, existed in something more than fiction.
For those looking to see Maggie Smith interact with other great British actors in anything right now, and those who appreciate operas and orchestras, "Quartet" is something like a favorite warm blanket on a chilly February night.
The directing debut of Dustin Hoffman isn't much more than a sentimental lark, and for many it will be sufficient that this bittersweet tale about getting old feels like a reunion with old friends in the age 70-plus club of Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins and Michael Gambon.
Top-notch screenwriter Ronald Harwood adapts his play about the idea of staying young at heart through the infectious power of music. He shows here, as he did in "The Pianist" and "The Dresser," that he knows a few things about the power of art and performance and their effect on the soul.
We are introduced to Beecham House as a place where the home (a Georgian-style mansion in Buckinghamshire, England) awakens every morning to a variety of instruments and vocals.
The group dynamics become clear quickly, as some of these people competed and collaborated in the past, but now they come together: The home's annual gala - a sort of variety show celebrating Giuseppe Verdi's birthday - is arriving soon.
Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy
Connolly, Pauline Collins, Michael Gambon
AMC Southroads 20
1 hour, 40 minutes
PG-13 (brief strong language, suggestive
(on a scale from zero to four
We learn that this fund-raising event is essentially what pays to keep Beecham House open, so we know what is at stake here, and how awful it would be for residents if this unique home was shuttered.
Also arriving to shake things up: Jean Horton (Smith), a famed opera singer who is forever a diva, but now down on her luck and finances enough to need Beecham House as a sanctuary.
She is also the ex-wife of Reggie (Courtenay of "Doctor Zhivago"), already a resident there with no idea he's about to see her again for the first time in years, or that both are to be recruited to reunite with Beecham residents Wilf (Scottish jester Connolly) and Cissy (Collins of "Shirley Valentine" fame) to perform their renowned "Rigoletto Quartet" for the gala event.
It should be obvious where this is headed, but at least "Quartet" does attempt a few detours that prove amusing until they peter out to nil effect.
An example of this: Reggie's lecture with a group of young people visiting the home, in which he relates opera to a modern audience (In opera, a man gets stabbed and sings about it, while in hip-hop a man gets stabbed and talks about it, he explains to a young man).
It is moments like this that allow Courtenay to steal the picture's heart, while Connolly hammers away at the funny bone ("I remember your performance," Wilf says in gigging at another resident. "It brought tears to my ears").
While Collins is both affecting and amusing (she plays Cissy and her dementia about like one might play a "dumb blonde" role), the surprising disappointment is Smith.
She doesn't seem to know how far to take Jean, either to the comedic side or the heartfelt side of her diva character, and the result is a star not looking confident in what she's doing.
Smith may have needed stronger direction than what Hoffman could offer; he shows good form, but little imagination.
There is little here to compare to her brilliantly acerbic Dowager Countess in "Downton Abbey" or her character in "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" that undergoes a similar change in beliefs.
For a woman who is still a force of nature on any stage at 78, this performance comes off as her weakest of the last year. Thankfully "Quartet" is not a solo performance, and it has a variety of joys.
I recommend watching the end credits roll on this picture to learn of the wonderful supporting players among the actors at the home, who are veterans of England's most famed symphonies and theatrical companies. They make "Quartet" really sing.
Original Print Headline: 'Quartet' hits a few high notes
Michael Smith 918-581-8479
Maggie Smith stars in "Quartet." Courtesy