Do some actors get a free pass from audiences and critics just because they’re legends? Take Maggie Smith for example, she’s a two-time Academy Award winner who has starred in dozens of iconic films that range from the groundbreaking The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie to the Harry Potter series. Smith has become a symbol of classical British stage training and her very presence in any film (think Sister Act and The First Wives Club) immediately gives said project an aura of prestige.
But for almost three decades now, she’s been, well, coasting and playing what is essentially the same character. Before gasping and proceeding with accusations of blasphemy, think about it for a second.
After her BAFTA and Golden Globe-winning performance as spinster Charlotte Bartlett in the Merchant Ivory production of A Room with a View, Smith seems to have realized that she could be very effective by merely rolling her eyes, pursing her lips, giving judgmental glances and delivering her quips with a touch of acidity, contempt and humor. In a nutshell, she became the Maggie Smith we now know and love. But whether it was the industry’s sexism or the lack of parts available for women over a certain age, she stopped being amazing to watch. She has developed a shtick that has allowed her to play “herself” over and over again.
She’s won two back-to-back Emmys for her work as the Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey, which is basically the same role she played in Gosford Park (except in different times). In 2012 she was predicted to earn an Academy Award nomination for her work in both The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, where she also played a grumpy older woman with a knack for vicious line deliveries and Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut Quartet, where, you guessed it…
It’s not that Smith is doing anything wrong, she is still endlessly pleasurable to watch and the source of many an internet meme that bring constant joy to the masses, but she doesn’t surprise us onscreen any more. In Quartet she plays Jean Horton, a famous opera singer who happens to be the newest guest at Beecham House, a retirement home for gifted musicians. Her admission doesn’t only make her the most famous guest in the home, it also makes her the target of Reg Paget’s (Tom Courtenay) wrath, since she notoriously left him heartbroken when they were married decades before.
Sadly, Jean is also the missing piece in Reg’s latest project: a fundraiser where he and two other guests will perform a legendary version of Rigoletto that made them famous after the war. This would be high diva behavior if it wasn’t for the fact that they need the money to save the home! Of course, it’s easy to guess how everything will play out (no movie will leave prodigious artistic retirees without a home, right?) and the film intends to have us derive our pleasures from watching the actors do their magic.
Needless to say, by the second part of the movie we’ve seen enough of Courtenay being severe, of Smith being Smith and of Pauline Collins and Billy Connolly being used as mere comedic sidekicks. Where the film should’ve been insightful and heartbreaking, some of its scenes are grating. As a director, Hoffman perhaps lacks the nuances he used to have as an actor. His reverence for his ensemble makes the movie feel as unadventurous as elevator music and robs us of the opportunity to watch this iconic quartet deliver a symphonic effect.
Never do the characters feel like more than creatures called into existence to satisfy this tale of “old people being funny and cute”, and even those for whom a backstory is suggested, come off lacking subtlety and knowledge of their past, worst of all perhaps is the sense of dramatic importance that guilts us into thinking we’re watching a much better movie because of its prestigious cast and crew. A recurring theme in the movie is Bette Davis’ motto that “old age isn’t for sissies” and maybe she was right, but being old does not instantly equal undeniable wisdom, either.
Quartet is presented in HD and the fact that it got shot on film gives it a lovely texture and color. The sound which should’ve stressed the beauty of the music in the movie is relegated so that we can listen to the actors’ classy enunciation and quarrels. Bonus features include commentary with Hoffman (who is always a pleasure to listen to and he seems very proud of his work in this), as well as making-of featurettes which put together comprise a cute fifteen minute chronicle. Rounding up the set are trailers for other pedigree movies.