Prime Entertainment on DVD: Dustin Hoffman’s Quartet
starring Dame Maggie Smith and an Outstanding Cast
By: Ellis Nassour
When you sit down at home to enjoy Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut with the film adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s 1999 poignant and marvelous Quartet (Weinstein Company/Anchor Bay/BBC Films; 98 minutes; Blu-ray SRP $40; DVD SRP $30), you’ll ask three questions: Why did he wait so long (age 75)*? Why did he a British work instead of something very American? Why isn’t there at least another half hour? You don’t say the latter about many films these days, but Quartet is that good.
With Harwood, the prolific writer of The Dresser (Tony-nominated, Best Play, 1981), The Pianist (Oscar-winner for his screenplay adaptation) [the film was Oscar and Golden Globe-nominated for Best Picture], and, among other acclaimed films, Being Julia (2004, about the travails and triumphs of stage actors), he chose a writer with a flair for the theatrical. Harwood earned his stripes at RADA and subsequently Sir Donald Wolfit’s Shakespeare company, where he became his personal dresser.
Quartet is set at a high-Victorian upscale retirement home for opera singers and musicians who may be frail and failing, but who aren’t going quietly into that good night.
Hoffman’s deft hand is at the helm, but he wrangled an outstanding cast: Dame Maggie Smith, portraying Jean, a once illustrious diva stripped of her prowess and who spends time shut off in her room listening to her great performances, is the headliner, delivering another one of her famed haughty performances. However, she’s not the only standout. She’s all but overshadowed by Tom Courtenay [co-star of and Oscar-nominee, The Dresser]’s riveting performance as tenor Reg, who was briefly Jean’s first husband and who’s still smitten.
Billy Connolly, in surely the best performance of his career, is Wilf, the still-womanizing bass (he should have given up his bawdy standup years ago); and the absolutely irrepressible Pauline Collins (Upstairs, Downstairs; Oscar-nominee, Shirley Valentine) as the on-the-verge of dementia, sweet butinski Cissy, a former mezzo-soprano, who literally walks off with the picture. She’s given some very heavy competition by Michael Gambon, wildly over-the-top as supremely self-satisfied, former director Cedric.
The reunion of the famed singers is poignant and entertaining; however, the cavalcade of actual retired actors, singers, and musicians are nothing to scoff at. In the end crawl, they are shown as their younger selves along with the role that made them famous.
It’s among this set that Hoffman, and perhaps Harwood, too, missed the boat on what could have been a great dynamic in the film. Jean is insanely jealous of and snooty rude toward one of her great rivals, whom, it turns out still has a glorious voice. As the gala gets underway, her better has the ultimate revenge as she catches Jean sneaking a peak from the wings, totally incredulous at what she’s hearing. How ab fab it would have been to see the regal Jean eat some humble pie.
Bonus material includes commentary by Hoffman, and a behind-the-scenes featurette.
* [Actually, in the late 70s, Hoffman’s undertook directing the crime drama Straight Time, in which he was also starring. Finding it difficult to do both, he turned over the reins to stage director Ulu Gosbard (Arthur Miller’s The Price and Frank Gilroy’s The Subject Was Roses – both Best Play Tony winners.]