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Still scene stealing

02 January 2013

Quartet with Billy Connolly as Wilf, Tom Courtenay as Reggie, Andrew Sachs as Bobby and Pauline Collings as Cissy. Picture: PA Photo/Momentum Pictures

Quartet (12A, 108 mins)

Comedy/Drama/Romance. Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins, Michael Gambon, Sheridan Smith. Director: Dustin Hoffman.

If you want a waspish one-liner delivered with impeccable timing and venom, gift it to Dame Maggie Smith.

Almost 60 years after her first TV appearance, the award-winning star continues to reduce grown men half her age to quivering wrecks with delicious barbs and withering glances.

She pursed her lips with gusto as Professor McGonagall in the Harry Potter series, brought humanity to a racist, xenophobic widow in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and continues to scene-steal as the imperious Dowager Countess of Downton Abbey.

Smith is armed with a plentiful supply of verbal grenades in Quartet, a gentle comedy adapted for the screen by Ronald Harwood from his own acclaimed stage play.

It's light and frothy fare, with a generous glaze of sentiment, which marks an assured directorial debut for Oscar-winning actor Dustin Hoffman.

His film unfolds largely within Beecham House, a retirement home for opera singers and musicians who are in the twilight of their glorious careers.

Run with a gentle yet firm touch by on-staff medic Dr Lucy Cogan (Sheridan Smith), the facility heaves with eccentrics, including luvvie Cedric (Michael Gambon), who masterminds the annual fundraising concert attended by staff and wealthy donors.

Three of the residents - Reginald (Tom Courtenay), Wilf (Billy Connolly) and Cissy (Pauline Collins) - once performed Verdi's quartet from Rigoletto as part of a celebrated quartet.

The unexpected arrival of the group's fourth member, Reg's ex-wife Jean (Maggie Smith), sends shockwaves through Beecham House.

"I wanted a dignified senility - fat chance with her here," rues Reg.

Jean is embarrassed by her fall from grace to a retirement home named after British conductor Sir Thomas Beecham.

"His grandfather made laxatives," she observes tartly. "Naming a nursing home after him is frighteningly apt."

Quartet with Maggie Smith as Jean and Pauline Collins as Cissy. Picture: PA Photo/Momentum Pictures

Once Jean adjusts to the gentle ebb and flow of daily life at the home and rebuilds bridges that were burnt to a cinder, she rediscovers her passion for performance.

Cedric is giddy with delight.

What could be more perfect for the fundraising soiree than a reprise of the quartet's soaring "Bella figlia dell'amore"?

Quartet is a warm, gentle hug of a comedy that never quite escapes its stage origins.

Many scenes feel static, cocooned with chambers of the retirement home, as characters deliver Harwood's polished dialogue from sitting positions.

Hoffman's simple, unfussy camerawork enforces the pedestrian pace.

The ensemble cast is excellent, from Smith's diva who "never took less than 12 curtain calls" for her embodiment of Verdi's Gilda, to Courtenay's bookish fuddy-duddy.

Connolly and Collins relish the opportunity to play larger-than-life comic foils: the former with a glint in his eye as an outrageous flirt; the latter as a wide-eyed innocent whose forgetfulness heralds the early stages of dementia.

Like Cissy, we're unlikely to remember Quartet in the weeks to come, but it's nevertheless a sweet and amusing diversion.

:: Swearing :: No sex :: No violence :: Rating: 6/10

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