Maggie Smith has always been all angles and attitude, the kind of actress better suited to a career on the stage than in movies. But she has had triumphant success in both. And she appears to show no signs of slowing down, what with her ongoing role on "Downton Abbey" and her many film roles. A generation that doesn't know Jean Brodie recognize Smith from the "Harry Potter" series. And just this past year, she appeared with her peers -- that is, esteemed actors of a certain age -- in the surprise art house hit "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," the story of retirement and spiritual rebirth set in India. In it, she portrayed a curmudgeon in need of a hip replacement who morphed into a content lady by the final reel.
In Quartet, her latest film, she plays an aging diva, Jean Horton, also in need of a hip replacement and some spiritual renewal. But instead of journeying to India, she is consigned to a posh home for aging musicians of the more highbrow variety, where she must face a new chapter in her life. And so, it turns out, must the home itself: facing budget cuts, it may disappear if its annual concert, a high-profile fundraiser, isn't a success. That message is trumpeted by Cedric Livingston (Michael Gambon), the former conductor with a penchant for wearing gorgeous silk robes and having a bellicose manner. As the performers sing a chorus from "La Traviata," he bemoans the fact that no one takes the concert as serious as he does. And upon losing his headliner, he predicts doom.
Hope comes in the person of Horton, an esteemed soprano forced by circumstance to move into the home. She is, of course, a diva: a role befitting the regal Smith. At first she eschews her new companions but slowly joins the social circle once reacquainted with a number of colleagues: ditzy soprano Cissy Robson (Pauline Collins) and still-randy tenor Wilf Bond (Billy Connolly), with whom she once starred in a lauded production of "Rigoletto." Their performance of the opera’s famous quartet is legendary, and Livingston thinks that if it can be performed again at the gala, the home can be saved.
The problem is that Reginald Page (Tom Courtenay) -- the fourth member of that quartet -- is Horton’s ex, and their relationship ended badly. When he hears that she has arrived at Beecham House, he threatens to move; but his commitment to musical education (realized in a lovely sequence where he compares opera to rap), keeps him from leaving. Still, he’s reluctant to speak to Horton. Even after nearly twenty years, the wounds are still fresh.
The complications are worked out in a sweet, if predictable, manner in Ronald Harwood’s script (adapted from his play). The stock characters and situations take any element of surprise out of the narrative. What makes the film (the screen directorial debut of Dustin Hoffman) worth watching is its cast of aging British actors bring life to their characters.
Hoffman has a good rapport with his cast (which includes numerous luminaries from British opera and classical music), and each gets a moment to shine, most notably the principals. Be it Courtenay pouting, Connolly flirting, Collins being confused or Smith just being Smith. We’ve seen her do this before -- she’s been one of the most consistently haughty, yet oddly human actresses since she stormed on the screen in her Oscar-winning portrayal of Jean Brodie in 1969. And, remarkably, she hasn’t worn out her welcome.
"Quartet" is from the Masterpiece Theater school of filmmaking. Call it Merchant Ivory-lite. It has style, class, gorgeous photography and a patina of emotional resonance. That it all but evaporates from memory upon leaving the theater doesn’t mean it isn’t pleasant to sit through.
Still, for a film about the place where music and memory converge, check out "Tosca’s Kiss," the haunting 1985 documentary about elderly Italian singers in a retirement home. It sings; like Beyonce, "Quartet" just lip synchs.