“I do hate getting older, I hate every bloody moment of it”
Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut on film came last year in the form of an adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s play Quartet, set in a retirement home for gifted musicians and singers. At Beecham House, the residents attend various classes and activities, teach visiting youngsters the tricks of their trades and participate in the yearly gala concert necessary to boost the finances and keep it open. And this ability to fulfil their love for performance is what makes it a special place and where the film finds its greatest successes in the midst of its otherwise inoffensive charms.
The main thrust of the story is around the arrival of grande dame Jean Horton, a retired opera singer who is struggling to come to terms with her new circumstances. She keeps herself to herself, refusing to join in with the communal activities, even though she is now living with former friends, colleagues and husbands. This is particularly pertinent as her arrival completes the quartet of performers from the most acclaimed version of Rigoletto since the Second World War and everyone is alive to the fundraising potential of such a reunion. But Jean has bridges to build, most notably with her bitter ex Reg, and with Cissy and Wilf hoping they’ll all get to sing together again, they get to the business of putting the past to rest.
It’s an extremely classy film – Hoffman’s direction exudes an elegance which expands the horizons of the writing’s theatrical beginnings, full of beautiful shots of Hedsor House, the stately home where it is set and its extensive grounds, but its masterstroke is the casting of bona fide veterans as the main bulk of the residents. So we get the likes of Dame Gwyneth Jones as a rival prima donna and Patricia Loveland as the pianist adding real authenticity to proceedings and if there were any doubt about their pedigree, there’s a gorgeous touch to the closing credits which feature photos from their prime and biographical snippets reminding us in no uncertain terms of the sheer quality within.
The quality can’t quite hide the cosiness of the material though, there is nothing that isn’t entirely predictable in here, no dramatic tension or surprises lurking under the genteel surface. And the realities of life in a retirement home are barely touched on, the spectre of old age rarely acknowledged. When it does delve into this territory, it proves highly effective – Sheridan Smith’s perky inhouse doctor alludes to these trials late on in the film, and Pauline Collins makes a beautiful portrayal of Cissy’s declining mental faculties.
Otherwise there is a polite distance from such suggestions but the exceptional work from Maggie Smith as the haughty Jean, increasingly full of recrimination and regret, Tom Courtenay as the ex who struggles to leave the demons of the past behind and even Billy Connolly (someone of whom I’m not really a fan) whose rascally wit provides relief for us all, makes this a genuine marshmallowy pleasure to watch.