Despite having a famous cult movie role (Billy in Billy Liar), an Oscar nomination (for The Dresser) and a Yo La Tengo song named after him, actor Tom Courtenay hasn’t had the avalanche of showy roles that naturally gravitate towards Brits as they wallow in their autumn years. Billy Liar aside, he was always a more reserved actor, rarely of the constitution that attracts producers of cute English imports. A prominent role in Quartet, a cute English import, is welcome, then: Not only does he get massive face time in a picture people will see because of course they will, but his deeply felt performance elevates a film that otherwise might have coasted on little but quaint British charm and randy old man jokes.
Courtenay plays one quarter of the titular foursome, also including Maggie Smith, Billy Connolly and Pauline Collins. A long time ago, they were known for their performance of a vocal section of Rigoletto. Today, they are geriatrics, with Courtenay, Connolly and Collins interred at a home for retired musicians along with the likes of Fawlty Towers’ Andrew Sachs and a silly-robe-wearing Michael Gambon. When Smith, long estranged from the group, suddenly winds up their immediate neighbor, the first instinct is to get the band back together, or it would be if they weren’t out of practice—or if Smith hadn’t been the girl who once broke Courtenay’s heart. Oh, and the home is in danger of closing, so let’s put on a show!
That this cliché is treated as an afterthought is one of many reasons Quartet is far more tolerable than it should be. Connolly gets most of the dirty old man jokes, but is mostly charmingly carefree regardless, while Courtenay’s wounded, stubborn killjoy, holding onto an ancient jilting, and Smith’s remorseful jilter lend gravitas to a fizzy dramedy so light, it eternally threatens to float away. The script, by The Pianist’s Ronald Harwood, based on his play, doesn’t know what to do with this subplot. Nor does first-time director Dustin Hoffman, who, like Edward Norton (director of Keeping the Faith), proves himself, after an illustrious career as a serious thespian, to be, as a filmmaker, aesthetically identical to Roger Michell (Venus), John Madden (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) and whoever directed The Full Monty.