Watching Quartet, the latest entry in Maggie Smith’s late-career surge, one can’t help but wonder what Smith’s two best recent characters, Gosford Park’s Countess of Trentham and Downton Abbey’s Countess of Grantham, might think of this trite, throwaway banality. Not to be confused with Smith’s 1981 Merchant-Ivory flick of the same name, the British dramedy sees the actress portray one of four aged members of a once-tight-knit opera group, who all conveniently opt to wind down their days at Beecham House, a senior living facility for wealthy old musicians (resting on the verdant hills of the English countryside, the breathtaking manse looks like it sprang from a Brontë novel). Surely the premise will sound stuffy to most, but honestly, this movie could have used a bit more nose-in-the-air poshness, rather than middlebrow hooey that fails to do its cast or setting justice. Smith plays Jean, the last of the four crooners to drop her bags at Beecham, and the one least prepared to humbly accept that she’s not what she used to be, her diva mentality still intact (“I’ve not yet reached my second childhood, thank you,” she quips). Playing a familiar grand-dame role, but with dialogue that’s uncharacteristically beneath her talents, Smith personifies Quartet’s central, iron-spined conflict, as Jean must let her walls crumble before she can gracefully saunter toward heaven’s gate.
The taming of Smith’s shrew is key because it’s tied to the dignity of her former pals, all of whom are as conversely eager as they are equally archetypal. Skirt-chasing Wilfred (Billy Connolly), chirpily demented Cissy (Pauline Collins), and bookishly upright Reginald (Tom Courtenay), to whom Jean was once married for a spell, all want to get the band back together for a third-act-friendly concert, which Beecham is hosting in celebration of Giuseppe Verdi’s birthday. A series of largely tedious rehashed memories and unremarkable introductions unfold amid the typical inner workings of an old folks’ home, all of it barreling toward the inevitable show that gives meaning to Jean’s compatriots. The chatter and events never go beyond the blandly requisite, with Cissy’s flightiness providing senility humor and at least one close-call mishap, and Wilfred (who gets the cheeky surname of Bond) hitting on female employees and marking his territory on the croquet field. Passages of wisdom do arise, such as when Reginald explains the poetic links of rap and opera to a visiting class of youngsters, but not before one student’s reveal of her favorite singer is met by Reginald with, “Lady Ga-who?”
Anyone who’s worked with senior citizens will tell you how vital music is to them, but Quartet fails to capture that vitality, its parts amounting to something that’s old-hat and uninspired. Adapting his own stage play, screenwriter Ronald Harwood turns in one of his weakest scripts, and, assuming the director’s chair for the first time, Dustin Hoffman proves an ill-fitting maestro, piloting a film that, all things considered, feels irksomely…American. Far more than Smith’s other 2012 retirement-home romp, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Quartet seems baldly intent on coddling the Hollywood mainstream, right down the actress’s cheer-courting delivery of an icy “Fuck you.” And without getting too hung up on the awkward dodging of the actors’ lack of actual musical gifts (there are lots of audio-only cutaways and score-drowned rehearsals), worst of all might be the hammered-meat treatment of the save-our-facility narrative, which is wrapped up even more abruptly than it’s introduced. Not even Michael Gambon, who dusts off his Dumbledore drag as a seemingly gay impresario, can fabulize all this filmic decrepitude. For a movie that aims to make four artists’ last spotlit hurrah a revel-worthy moment, Quartet shouldn’t urge the viewer to welcome the closing of the curtain.