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Movie Review

A noteworthy cast lifts Hoffman’s ‘Quartet’

‘Quartet” is a sweet-tempered, rather fuddly drama about retired opera singers, and compared to a slick crowd-pleaser like “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” with whom it shares a star and a sentimentalized view of old age, it’s a mess. That’s why I like it better and you may, too. As adapted by Ronald Harwood (“The Dresser”) from his stage play and directed by a first-timer named Dustin Hoffman, the new movie gives its actors and story line space to breathe, make mistakes, forge connections.

And it’s about performers and performance, which are things this director knows about. Specifically, “Quartet” is about what happens when a performing artist’s physical gifts start to fail with the years; whether acceptance or resistance is the wisest response; where to put one’s pride. The movie just couches these issues in a cozy love story.

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The setting is Beecham House, a retirement home for classical musicians tucked away in the English countryside. A fund-raising gala to commemorate Verdi’s birthday is in the offing, directed by the mercurial Cedric (Michael Gambon), and the usual ego games are playing out. The appearance of Jean Horton (“Marigold Hotel” star Maggie Smith), a celebrated British soprano, complicates matters. If she joined three old friends for the quartet from “Rigoletto,” it would serve as the evening’s capstone. But the diva has lost much of her voice and is too stubborn or fearful to admit it.

The other three conspire to enlist her, anyway: Wilf (Billy Connolly), the community’s resident lovable lech; eternal optimist Cissy (Pauline Collins), whose wits are beginning to go; and calm, collected Reggie (Tom Courtenay), who was married to Jean for nine hours way back when and has never gotten over her.

Apparently Beecham House is in danger of going under, but Hoffman lets us forget that surprisingly quickly. As with many movies directed by actors, “Quartet” is less attentive to its plot than its players, whose performances sprawl indulgently across the staircases and chaise lounges. Given that cast, who’s going to complain? If it means we have to put up with a heaping slab of ham from Connolly and even a discreet slice or two from Smith — the actress revels in the vestiges of Jean’s glamour, so different from the frosty punch lines of “Downton Abbey” — it’s a small price to pay.

Not a lot happens in “Quartet” and what does is predictable, yet the movie’s pleasures, while minor, are real. It’s a film about music, so, fittingly, the music on the soundtrack is diegetic, meaning it’s performed by the people onscreen, almost all of them actual retired singers, actors, and musicians. (One exception: When the stars “perform” the climactic quartet, the camera manages to be discreetly elsewhere.) At one point, Hoffman just sits back and watches an aging trumpet player (Ronnie Hughes, who the credits inform us once played with Sinatra) hunker down in a window seat and blow, grace notes to a life well-played.

The most touching figure isn’t Smith’s Jean or even Collins’s ditsy Cissy but Courtenay as the fussy but open-minded Reggie, illuminating for a group of high school students the overlap between opera and rap and giving up all hope of a “dignified senility” with the appearance of his ex-wife. He and the others finesse Harwood’s surprisingly stale dialogue like the pros they are and the pros they’re portraying; they know lines like “I don’t believe he ever stopped loving you” are well-worn because we want them to be true.

Next to “Amour,” another movie about aging musicians but a work far more unyielding and insightful, “Quartet” is a lie. But it’s a lie we can live with.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.
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