A decorous gathering of dames and other knighted U.K. doyens, Quartet centers on the residents of Beecham House, a baronial residence for retired musicians.
Former conductor Cedric (Michael Gambon), bedecked in a series of fantastic caftans and charged with organizing the annual gala fundraiser, determines that the reunion of the foursome who shone in a long-ago production of Rigoletto will be the event's biggest draw. Assembling the headlining act requires a few desultory scenes of encouraging Beecham's newest addition, opera diva Jean Horton (Maggie Smith), to participate. Jean, once romantically involved with Reginald (Tom Courtenay), who passes the time giving gentle lectures to bused-in youths about the difference between opera and rap, states her objections sharply: "I can't insult the memory of who I was."
That all-too-real fear for the eminences gathered here stands as the only true pathos in the sentimental and pandering Quartet, adapted by Ronald Harwood from his own 1999 play and directed by Dustin Hoffman, stepping behind the camera for the first time. "Their love of life is infectious," says the staff doctor, holding back tears in the final minutes, belying the previous scenes of agony over hip-replacement surgery and Reginald's stated wish to have "a dignified senility."
The physician might have been referring exclusively to the randy joker played by Billy Connolly, prone to public urination and violating the staff's personal space -- acts sanctifying the memory of who he still is.