Maggie Smith stars in 'Quartet'

( PG-13 ) ( Monitor Movie Guide )

'Quartet,' directed by Dustin Hoffman, is poignant because of Maggie Smith's character, a famous opera star who is sent to an artists' retreat.

The Weinstein Company/AP
Maggie Smith (l.) and Pauline Collins (r.) star in 'Quartet.'

Dustin Hoffman, at 75, makes his directorial debut with the enjoyably quaint “Quartet,” an English ensemble drama set in a retirement home for aging musicians. It’s not the sort of movie you can imagine him acting in, and, apparently, he agreed.

Instead, he’s stocked his cast with a who’s who of British luminaries, among them Michael Gambon, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, and, inevitably, Maggie Smith.

Smith’s presence here is something of an insurance policy. The minute she turns up you brace yourself for her ineffable Maggie Smithness. She is playing Jean Horton, a famous opera star who has unwillingly taken up residence in Beecham House, established more than a century ago by Verdi as an artists’ retreat. There she is surrounded by divas and cohorts from her past. One of them is Reggie Paget (Courtenay), to whom she was once briefly married before bitterly splitting up. Hoping to live out a life of “dignified senility,” Reggie is poleaxed by Jean’s reappearance and immediately wants out.

He also still loves her, but this being a veddy British enterprise, it takes him most of the movie to open up to her. That’s OK. Withheld feelings are Courtenay’s stock in trade as an actor; the more he represses, the more he expresses. Even when he finally opens the floodgates, he doesn’t gush.

It’s not surprising that Hoffman would undertake such an actorcentric first film. The camerawork is serviceable, but essentially this is an unashamedly theatrical piece. It is, in fact, adapted by Ronald Harwood from his 1999 play. (Harwood won an Oscar in 2002 for “The Pianist” and in 1983 adapted his play “The Dresser,” costarring Courtenay in one of his most memorable roles.) The actors play up their eccentricities – this is a polite way of saying they ham it up – but never quite go over the edge.

One of the hallmarks of this type of drama is that the characters are instantly typed: Jean is haughty and weary; Reggie is philosophically sad; Will (Connolly) is a rakish joker constantly flirting with the much younger on-staff medic (Sheridan Smith); Cissy (Pauline Collins, barely recognizable from “Upstairs Downstairs”), listening to music through her headphones, is amiably dotty. Cedric (Gambon), the director of musical performances at Beecham House, is mad about flowing caftans.

Beecham House has fallen on hard times and faces foreclosure, and so, to raise funds, the decision is made to stage a gala in celebration of Verdi’s birthday. The local talent, with the conspicuous exception of Jean, are all on board. Belting out selections from “Rigoletto” and “La Traviata” is the best medicine, it seems, and the rehearsals are, to put it mildly, exuberant.

What gives the movie its poignancy – what turns it into something more than a polite entertainment – is Smith’s role. Or, to be more exact, her performance, in tandem with Courtenay’s. Jean is adamant against joining the gala because she can’t bear not sounding her best. She often sneaks furtive looks in the mirror and listens alone to old vinyl recordings of herself.

She isn’t being morose or masochistic. It’s just that her artist’s pride forbids her from tainting her memories of how she sounded in her prime. What she doesn’t realize, until the end, is the therapeutic essence of her art. She may not be able to hit the notes the way she used to, but who, at this point, really expects her to? The effort is all.

Movies about oldsters – when they aren’t condescending or musty – are always welcome in an era when characters over the age of 40 are rarely showcased anymore. It’s inevitable that this film will be paired with 2011’s “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” and not just because Smith is in both of them, playing vaguely similar characters. (Both even need hip replacements.)

While both films are too carefully pruned for maximum civilized uplift, in a way I prefer this approach to that of a film like, say, the overrated “Amour,” which is supposed to be about mortality but is really about morbidity – the creep of decay. The characters in “Quartet” may be on their way out, but they aren’t giving up without a fight. Grade: B (Rated PG-13 for brief strong language and suggestive humor.)

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