You'd think that when a veteran actor steps behind the camera, the resulting movie would showcase performances rather than kinetic pacing or stylistic experiments. Actors would receive sustained scenes to show off their chops. In other words, you'd expect a play recorded on film.
Quartet is the first feature Dustin Hoffman has directed. Though the movie is based on a play by Ronald Harwood, it's hard to comprehend how such a lean script could amount to anything more than a one-act piece.
The story is set at Beecham House, a retirement home for professional musicians. Among the residents are reserved Reggie Paget (Tom Courtenay), often-inappropriate Wilf Bond (Billy Connolly) and ditzy Cissy Robson (Pauline Collins), who have all been friends for years. Their peaceful, predictable lives are interrupted by the arrival of Jean Horton (Maggie Smith), one of England's great opera divas. As it turns out, she has a history with Reggie that he doesn't want to revisit.
Surely there will be plenty of tension as Reggie and Jean negotiate the awkwardness of being stuck in the same place. Courtenay can play deeply wounded, but Smith's imperiousness makes her character's attempts at peacemaking seem implausible. The deeper problem, though, is that what should be a central conflict is almost immediately resolved. We learn of a very brief marriage between Reggie and Jean, followed by years of avoidance, yet the former lovebirds quickly achieve a kind of deténte. So much for rich character drama.
This is how Quartet handles virtually every potential conflict and plot point: a moment of drama that rapidly leads to a state of stasis. Wilf has a stroke-related episode that seems to portend trouble, but nothing else goes awry. Cissy's on the verge of losing her memory, yet she never does. While the ravages of age are a frequent topic of conversation among the characters, the film itself seems scared of confronting these realities head-on.
Hoffman is left with tons of space for montages and other pleasant but unnecessary fluff. Beecham House's bucolic, tree-filled surroundings could have received third billing in the credits for all the footage they get. The residents engage in various hobbies, and Reggie interacts with some teens who help him recognize hip-hop's poetic side - for no apparent narrative purpose.
Pretty soon, the crew tries to convince Jean to perform at a benefit concert for the facility, despite her fears of showing her age-diminished voice. But there's no serious examination of her attachment to her former glory. Only Connolly's bombastic energy lifts the proceedings from torpor.
We don't even get to hear the concert the plot has been building toward. Will these once-great artists do themselves proud? We'll never know. We're too busy looking at the scenery.