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Originally published Thursday, January 24, 2013 at 3:00 PM

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‘Quartet’: The twilight of a diva

Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut, “Quartet,” is a warm, touching portrait of a group of aging opera singers.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie Review 3 stars

“Quartet,” with Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins, Michael Gambon, Dame Gwyneth Jones. Directed by Dustin Hoffman, from a screenplay by Ronald Harwood, based on Harwood’s play. 97 minutes. Rated PG-13 for brief strong language and suggestive humor. Harvard Exit, Lincoln Square.

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A gentle comedy about late-life optimism and regret among a group of elderly musicians in the English countryside, “Quartet” unfolds at what’s surely the world’s loveliest retirement home. (It’s fictitious, alas, but inspired by a home in Milan for retired opera singers, established by the composer Guiseppe Verdi in 1896.) Beecham House, which looks like Downton Abbey with Wi-Fi, holds several dozen retired opera singers and musicians; among them stately Reggie (Tom Courtenay), randy Wilf (Billy Connolly) and sweet but dotty Cissy (Pauline Collins). They are startled to learn, at the movie’s beginning, of the imminent arrival of Jean Horton (Maggie Smith), a renowned diva with whom they once made up a famed quartet. Will old jealousies rise again? Will Jean apologize for once breaking Reggie’s heart? Will they all reunite to sing the quartet from “Rigoletto” at the home’s gala concert? Will Michael Gambon wander through the movie wearing caftans and speaking authoritatively?

You can probably guess the answers to all of these questions, as nothing about “Quartet” is particularly fresh or surprising (except maybe those caftans). But nonetheless, it’s often delightful, in the way that a well-worn recording gives pleasure even when the listener knows every note. Smith can play this sort of role in her sleep, but she doesn’t; her Jean is imperious yet vulnerable, and a moment in which we see her sitting in the dark, silently mouthing along to one of her own recordings, is quite moving. This diva, we learn, isn’t quite as steely as she’d like you to think.

“Quartet” is Dustin Hoffman’s directing debut, so it’s not surprising that it’s an actors’ movie; full of lovely small moments of connection. It has an odd central problem at its core: While much of the movie’s dramatic tension comes from whether Jean will sing in the concert, this takes us out of the movie a bit, because we know that Dame Maggie isn’t a singer (unless she’s been holding out on us for many decades) and that lip-syncing, in this kind of movie, would feel artificial. (Many of the smaller roles are played by actual singers and musicians, including the opera singer Dame Gwyneth Jones.) But it’s all resolved nicely at the end. Stay for the credits; they’re a lovely, poignant reminder of the passage of time, and of lives spent immersed in art and music.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or

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