Anyway, let’s get to those pleasures first, the foremost of which is the embarrassment of acting riches. I wouldn’t even want to count the number of years on stage, screen and television among the movie’s veteran stars — Maggie Smith, Tom Courtney, Billy Connolly, Michael Gambon and Pauline Collins.
Watching them and a superb supporting cast — more on this in a moment — play off each other with snappy line deliveries, subtle nuances and perfect timing is delicious fun.
Then there’s the lush setting and superb music that runs through the entire movie. All the cast members are supposedly residents of a home for retired classical singers and musicians. So opera and music hall ditties wash over the soundtrack while the stately manor that is Beecham House and its surroundings gardens delight the eyes.
It’s also a comforting thought that in old age some people can continue to work and gossip with fellow professionals rather than sit staring at a TV, which passes for activity in most retirement facilities.
Mind you, I definitely wouldn’t want to retire to home for old film critics. Even now I expose myself to the quarrelsome lot that constitute my fellow professionals on a limited basis. How many arguments over the merits of “The Master” can anyone tolerate?
So those are at the pleasures of “Quartet.” Otherwise this is an overly romanticized if not thoroughly dishonest treatment of old age.
If only aging were like this. But anyone who has, as I have, dealt with an elderly parent forced against his or her will into a retirement community knows this is not how it goes down.
The screenplay by Ronald Harwood, based on his stage play, does feature the tired bromide that “old age isn’t for sissies.” But this movie doesn’t really believe it.
I realize the Weinstein Co. isn’t about to produce or distribute a movie featuring bed pans, bouts of dementia and bone-breaking accidents. But to create such a fantasy where the issue of old age is discussed ad infinitum but never dealt with in any meaningful way is a cheat.
Substituting for insight into the myriad problems of aging is a frivolous romantic comedy about an aging diva, Jean Horton (Smith), whose arrival at Beecham House upsets her former colleagues. Prior to abandoning them for a solo career, Jean once formed a quartet with Reginald (Courtenay), Wilfred (Connolly) and Sissy (Collins), all now residents of the home.
Worse, Jean was once married to Reginald so he is particularly upset at her arrival, kept secret for no apparent reason by the home’s startlingly young and beautiful director, Dr. Lucy Cogan (Sheridan Smith).
To be sure, everyone grouses a bit about having gotten so old. Although as Reginald aptly puts it: “That’s what people do.”
There are lame jokes about Wilfred’s incessant need to pee and incessant need to flirt with Dr. Cogan — or just about any female for that matter. Sissy does seem to have more than her share of “senior moments,” but these come and go at the convenience of Harwood’s dramatic needs.
Otherwise “Quartet” might as well have been a story about a music school for young people. (The peeing and flirtation jokes would hardly need alteration.)
Then again, no young cast could compete with these veterans. The spirited Connolly to be sure is playing older than he actually is but the others clearly have lost none of their celebrated abilities.
Smith and Courtenay make such a terrific bickering couple, you could cast them immediately in a revival of Noel Coward’s “Private Lives.” Collins possesses great charm and comic timing while Gambon has a jolly time playing a fatuous blowhard who elects himself director of the gala.
And Hoffman has wisely chosen to fill out the secondary roles not with aging actors but rather retired opera singers and musicians. They are simply wonderful.
The arias and tuneful songs ranging from “Rigoletto” to “The Mikado” are a treat to the ear and Hoffman has directed with a feathery touch, which perhaps stems from making a film directing debut at age 75. There’s little need to show off.
So a mixed bag here: Much talent and lovely performances are lavished on a creaky, disingenuous story ostensibly about old age but in reality about the vigor with which these performers still approach their craft.
The end credits where the actors and musicians are paired with old publicity photos from their past is a classy touch.
Opens: January 11, 2013 (The Weinstein Co.)
Production companies: A BBC Films and DCM Productions presentation of a Headline Pictures, Finola Dwyer Productions production in association with Decca, HanWay Films.
Cast: Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins, Michael Gambon, Sheridan Smith, Andrew Sachs, Dame Gwyneth Jones, Trevor Peacock, David Ryall, Michael Byrne, Ronnie Fox, Patricia Loveland
Director: Dustin Hoffman
Screenwriter: Ronald Harwood, based on his stage play
Producers: Finola Dwyer, Steward MacKinnon
Executive producers: Jamie Laurenson, Dario Suter, Christoph Daniel, Marc Schmidheiny, Dickon Stainer, Xavier Marchand, Dustin Hoffman
Director of photography: John de Borman
Production designer: Andrew McAlpine
Music: Dario Marianelli
Costume designer: Odile Dicks-Mireaux
Editor: Barney Pilling
PG-13 rating, 99 minutes.