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'Quartet': Dustin Hoffman's directorial debut is noteworthy
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies

"Quartet" begins with a very stark image: The face, the magnificently lined face, of a very old woman, poised, looking intently down at something. She is looking at a page of sheet music, and in a following shot that may remind some viewers of the similarly titled recent release "A Late Quartet," she is seen making notes on the sheet music. She then sits before an acoustic piano and begins to play.

So far, so simple and evocative. The plainness seems to bode well for the feature-film directorial debut of the great screen actor Dustin Hoffman, but it doesn't last too long. The simple scene is followed by the dreaded montage, this one of various older people waking up and getting in shape for their day. A shot of a portable electronic keyboard presents the pro forma ancient-versus-modern contrast. The setting is an old-age home for classical musicians in the British countryside.

Having seen at least, as far as my aging memory can discern, one other old-person ensemble piece this year ("The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel"), I was not surprised to find that the various characters we get to know a little better soon thereafter run somewhat to type. An event is in the offing at this old-age home, an annual concert, and of course it's a fundraiser and of course this year the home's financial future is in doubt so the concert is particularly important, so the conflicts between its various participants are going to be more fraught than usual. Michael Gambon, in his somehow Oscar Wilde-evoking satin robes, is an imperious conspiratorial perfectionist; Billy Connelly is the feisty, randy old goat always flirting with the younger staffers and whose recent stroke has left him largely without a self-censoring device; Tom Courtenay is the gentle soul who's happy to just fade away so long as he's allowed his preferred marmalade at breakfast; Pauline Collins is the saucy "let's show 'em what we got" trouper. And there are more, too, but their routine conflicts are upended by the arrival of diva Maggie Smith, a demanding and clenched personage who also happens to be Courtenay's ex-wife.

All these very conventional setups and machinations being what they are, the movie actually becomes an active pleasure once the players are finally set in their places. The writing -- the movie was scripted by Ronald Harwood, who won an Oscar for "The Pianist," and he adapted it from his own play -- is sharper and wittier and more generally astute than you get in almost every other help-the-aged picture that comes along these days. Cheap body-function jokes are avoided. And the actors are all immaculate, particularly Courtenay, whose presence in the cinema has been far too sparse in this century to suit my taste. His character is tired, bitter and more than a bit befuddled, but Courtenay invests him with an undercurrent, a hidden spark, that flares up at unexpected but entirely apt moments and brings the already solid writing into another dimension. The other actors are only slightly less excellent than he.

As for Hoffman's direction, the aforementioned montage notwithstanding, it's unobtrusive but not invisible. And as the movie goes on, it's both studious and admirable in the way it skirts the clichés of the triumph-in-the-face-of-infirm-adversity subgenre. The handling of the fateful final rehearsal, usually a very wearying sequence in this type of film, is in fact exemplary, and the ending is pretty much perfect. The final credits sequence, in which the past youthful triumphs of the ensemble cast (many of whom are, or were, primarily musicians) are recalled, is also worth sticking around for and may well choke you up. 

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Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.

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