Hoffman directs Quartet with skill, grace

Set in the green, hilly English countryside, Beecham House is a home for retired musicians. Consequently, the grand old house, and the movie it’s in, Quartet, is filled with music.

Many residents were rank and file members of orchestras and bands or vocalists in ensembles. But Beecham House, like the professional music world beyond its walls and grounds, also has its marquee names, albeit their stars shined brightest decades ago.

Classical music seems the dominant genre in the house. And music being a competitive field, Beecham’s residents retain the egos and rivalries of earlier years. At least one resident, too, has a lingering broken heart.

American actor and amateur pianist Dustin Hoffman makes his directorial debut with Quartet. At 75, he directs British principal cast members Maggie Smith, 78, Tom Courtenay, 75, Pauline Collins, 72, and Billy Connolly, 70.

Hoffman helms Quartet from a screenplay by Ronald Harwood, who wrote the play the movie is based upon, which debuted in London in 1999. The story works naturally in a film that features just a few nicely placed exterior scenes.

Downton Abbey fans likely will want to see Smith, who plays the scene-stealing Violet Crawley, dowager countess of Grantham, in the British TV series. She does touching work in the compact, charming Quartet as Jean Horton, an opera diva who’s fallen on hard times.

Beecham House is bustling with preparations for its annual gala concert, a benefit that helps keeps the place open. Meanwhile, rumors about the pending arrival of a new resident buzz through the house. He or she may be a star.

Jean’s arrival makes quite a stir. Several residents gather to warmly greet her Beecham House entrance with applause. Noticeably not applauding, though, is Jean’s former rival, Anne Langley, played by real-life opera star Dame Gwyneth Jones.

A cleanly told tale that nevertheless has much detail, Quartet’s drama largely comes from the reunion of Smith’s Jean and Courtenay’s Reginald Paget. The two were once married. Reggie, another opera singer, finds being under the same roof with Jean again, even after the many years since their marriage ended, difficult.

“I wanted a dignified senility,” he tells Beecham’s director, Dr. Lucy Cogan (Sheridan Smith). “I’ll have to find someplace else to live, sod it.”

Collins, playing the ditsy but delightful Cecily Robson, and Connolly, co-starring as former lothario Wilfred Bond, lighten the scenario with their mostly comic roles.

Likewise Michael Gambon, having graduated from his role as Professor Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series, takes a vainglorious turn as the gala concert’s egomaniacal director, Cedric Livingston.

As the film’s characters are reaching the end of their lives, important loose ends will be dealt with and soul searching will be done. Hoffman skillfully manages the many characters and musical segments in the film and gracefully orchestrates the story’s emotional arc. Quartet is a lovely late-career surprise from a master actor.