Old musicians -- they have the best insults.
"Your singing brought tears ... to my ears."
"I can't forget you in 'Carmen.' But I'll try."
The retired musicians at Britain's Beecham House may not have the cash or relatives to ensure they pass their last years at home. But they still have their wit, their love of rehearsal and fading vestiges of their talent.
That's the setting for "Quartet," Dustin Hoffman's dainty, adorable and adorably predictable film of Ronald Harwood's play. It's a celebration of great old actors set in a world of once-great singers. Hoffman's affection for them and the material shows in every frame.
Aged operatic divas and lesser mortals from the chorus, the orchestra or the English music halls fill the rooms of Beecham House, people who must live surrounded by music -- preferably their own.
Dame Maggie Smith plays the diva among divas, Jean Horton. The ancient, imperious Jean, "as large as life, and twice as terrifying," is new to Beecham. And that creates a stir.
Cissy (Pauline Collins, delightful) was Jean's forgetfully addled supporting player in many an opera. The old skirt chaser Wilfred (Billy Connolly, too young for his part but a hoot with a randy pick-up line) knew her well, too.
That's because his best friend, Reginald the tenor (Tom Courtenay), used to be married to her. Jean is the last person Reginald wants to see as "dignified senility" sets in.
Their awkwardness around this aloof "used to be SOMEbody" is nothing compared to that of the swanning director Cedric ("That's CEE-dric"), played to the hilt by Michael Gambon. He hears of Jean's arrival and immediately, the concert gala he's planning for the home's next fundraiser has a star attraction -- if only Jean didn't declare, "I don't sing any more. And that's final."
The plot is slight and its surprises are revealed long before they charmingly play out. But Hoffman anchors his movie in performance. String quartets, clarinet duets and piano solos are performed and classical music warhorses litter the soundtrack.
The other type of performance stands in the foreground. Dame Maggie is having the sort of late-career renaissance that can only be compared to America's Betty White. She's not in period costume and looks years younger than her recent screen appearances in "Downton Abbey" and "Best Exotic Marigold Hotel."
Hoffman doesn't break the mold, shock or awe anyone with his treatment of this comfort-food comedy. But he does celebrate veteran entertainers, their vanities, foibles and undying passion for their art form in a way he probably wishes other directors would do for him.
"Quartet," rated PG-13 for brief strong language and suggestive humor. Stars Maggie Smith, Billy Connolly, Tom Courtenay, Pauline Collins. Directed by Dustin Hoffman. Running time: 1:39. Grade: B Other movie reviews