Dustin Hoffman's new film 'Quartet' is a comedy that takes its music seriously
Hollywood films are like buses. The same subject matter seems to do the rounds in waves. So no matter whether it’s the latest blockbuster or a serious biopic, inevitably you get two or three films about Armageddon by asteroid, or the life of Truman Capote, or most recently – and somewhat surprisingly for mainstream cinema – two films about musical quartets.
A Late Quartet, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener and Christopher Walken as members of a string quartet forced to deal with Parkinson’s disease, will be released in the UK sometime next year. First off the starting block, then, is Quartet, released in the UK in January 2013. Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut depicts a retired operatic quartet, who in their heyday recorded Verdi’s Rigoletto together. Set in a retirement home for former singers and musicians, the cast, including such British thesps as Dame Maggie Smith, Pauline Collins, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Michael Gambon and Andrew Sachs, was enough to tempt much of the Gramophone team to a press screening in London’s Mayfair Hotel this week.
As a musician it’s always best to approach cinema’s dealings with the world of classical with care – for every Amadeus (and indeed there’s not much to touch Miloš Forman’s 1984 masterpiece) there’s a Duet for One, which featured Julie Andrews as a rather dubious violinist battling multiple sclerosis. A light and charming affair, Hoffman’s feature may well approach the ageing process with rose-tinted spectacles, and indeed the story of the trials and tribulations of putting on an annual show – complete with curmudgeonly stereotypes galore – is not exactly original. But it's nice to see that he’s got the music right. Ok, so the repertoire leans towards the popular, even the conservative, but bulking out the cast – and doing the majority of the playing and singing – are real musicians playing real instruments with a recognisable technique. Indeed, soprano Dame Gwyneth Jones has a starring role.
Perhaps the nicest feature of the film are the final credits, which list the musical pedigrees of the cast members, from singing at Covent Garden to former principal clarinet with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. So if you’re in need of a pleasant cinematic fix on a Sunday afternoon, you could do worse than watching Quartet. It may not set the world alight, but at least fans of Verdi – and of classical music in general - can rest easy.
Charlotte Smith is Gramophone news editor. She is also a freelance violinist and the team's resident film enthusiast.