Maggie Smith, who has won an Oscar, an Emmy and a Tony, couldn't win a teddy bear at the carnival midway in this role, which asks for her to stretch not a scintilla. Ordinarily, Billy Connelly, who was Mr. Brown in the film "Mrs. Brown" with Judi Dench, could read the phone book and get a standing O. Pauline Collins, one of the originators of the original "Upstairs Downstairs" and a standout in "Albert Nobbs" and "Shirley Valentine," manages to portray an addled woman sadly. And Tom Courtenay and Michael Gambon (stunning in "The Singing Detective" in 1986) serve merely as place-holders in "Quartet."
The screenplay was written by Robert Harwood from his 1999 play of the same name, and, given Harwood's credentials -- he wrote the screenplays for "The Pianist" and "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" -- "Quartet," the play itself should be better as a foundation for the film. But it's not. The plot is simple: A home for retired musicians puts on a fund-raising gala every year on Giuseppe Verdi's birthday, October 10 with a quartet sung from "Rigoletto."
This year, the vulgar boulevardier, Wilf Bond, played by Connelly; the addled Cissy (Collins), and the professorial Reggie (Courtenay) are prepared to sing along with the other residents as the chorus. A new singer, a diva, swans into the home. This is Jean Horton, played starchily by Smith, never took fewer than 12 curtain calls. To add complications to this quartet, Jean used to be married to Reggie, who is busy teaching classes to the local students comparing hip-hop with opera. He calls opera the "outpouring of all the lessons inside us." Reggie would rather not deal with his ex-wife, and she would rather not sing ever again. "Don't insult memories of what I was," she begs. But, of course, she sings at the end.
Also at the very end, parallel to the credits, are the faces of the actual opera singers, playing the aged in this home. It's an homage that almost makes the whole movie worthwhile instead of a waste.
Dustin Hoffman's direction includes gorgeous shots of the greenswards and copses surrounding this home for retired musicians. The colors are wonderful throughout, especially Smith's teals, but the film is bland, hardly worth singing home about. "Quartet" should have been so much better, a "Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" right in England, but it is pretty boring.