Rather startlingly, Quartet is the first movie to be directed by Dustin Hoffman. You'd never guess in a thousand years he was behind the camera; there's little trace of the actor whose against-the-grain, immersive performances changed movie acting in the 1970s.
The film is a cattle call for every British thespian over the age of 60. When not repeating the maxim about old age not being for sissies, the retirees at a home for aging musicians instruct visiting music students. The place is in fiscal trouble, and the hopes are that a charity gala might save the manor with the reunion of four singers whose performance in La Traviata is still cherished decades later.
Billy Connolly plays Wilfred Bond, recovering from a stroke which has left him an erotomaniac. ("It's the stroke talking," he says after delivering himself of some dirty reminiscences.) His good female friend and co-star Cissy (Pauline Collins) is drawn deeper into senility. And the most reluctant hold-out is the new arrival at the home, Jean Horton (Maggie Smith), once a heartbreaker, now so unnerved that even a passing cart full of laundry makes her jump.
She makes a twofold refusal to perform music live: she can't give a substandard performance because "I can't insult the memory of who I was." But the other half of her reluctance is guilt: the fourth member of the proposed reunion is her ex-husband and former partner, already a resident when Jean arrived.
Tom Courtenay, playing ex-husband Reginald, asks the question "Did she know that I live here?" with two different emphases; it's a taste of his range. When this movie gets overfond of its cast, Courtenay cools it down. He shows the cold blue light of old age, the irreconcilable hurt. He thought he could count on "dignified senility" in his last years, until the ex-wife who crushed his heart turns up to rekindle the pain. In a movie this essentially mushy, he stands tall.
Quartet is ultimately a gathering of actors lining up for a curtain call; however deserved that applause is, they have so much more to give.
'Quartet' opens Friday, Jan. 25, at the Rafael Film Center, 1118 Fourth St., San Rafael. 415.454.1222.