Murder most foul is one thing. Murder most fair is another. The veteran hambones starring in "Quartet" get away with murder most fair, through eye-bugging delight in a double-entendre in close-up (Billy Connolly); charmingly distracted line readings (Pauline Collins); underplaying so dry it becomes a form of overstatement (Tom Courtenay); and an air of unconquerable hauteur, leavened by tinges of regret (Maggie Smith).
"Quartet" comes from a minor play by Ronald Harwood, who adapted "The Dresser" for the screen from his own stage work and won an Oscar for "The Pianist." It's set in an English country retirement home for aging musicians known as Beecham House.
The place is abuzz: The big gala's a few weeks away, and economic straits threaten the long-term future of the place, which is populated by opera singers, pianists, violinists and music hall veterans, all co-existing in a cozy haze of collective performance memories.
The Smith character, a great operatic star now in her dotage, arrives to Beecham House, sending Courtenay's character, her onetime cuckolded husband from decades past, into a funk, followed by various snits.
While Connolly puts the moves on every female staffer in sight, and Collins copes with addle-headed bouts of mental fog, Courtenay and Smith tentatively explore whether there's anything left to their love. The old operatic gang must persuade Smith's character to perform once more, for the gala, in their signature quartet from Verdi's "Rigoletto."
The actors are fun to watch, even while they're chewing on thin wafers of dialogue such as: "Why do we have to get old?" Reply: "That's what people do." In addition to the leads, there's Michael Gambon, swanning around as the resident directorial tyrant in semiretirement.
"I don't sing anymore, and that is final," Smith announces at one point, in such a way as to ensure that she most certainly will, in the finale. (The lead actors are not called upon to sing more than a few notes, nor to lip-sync.)
The director of "Quartet" is Dustin Hoffman, making his feature debut behind the camera. He knows a thing or two about scene-stealing himself and clearly cherishes his cast. It's too bad his visual technique and the editing rhythm are so jumpy; Hoffman often chops up into three or four reaction-type shots what he could, and should, accomplish in one or two.
The material settles for amiably familiar observations about the difficulties of growing old and the glories of being surrounded by beautiful music. "Quartet" does not, however, reconcile the disparity between everybody's supposedly reduced circumstances, living on charity in Smith character's case, and the grand, bucolic splendor of the house and grounds. If these are reduced circumstances, I know where I'm going when I retire from grand opera.
'Quartet' -- 2 1/2 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for brief strong language and suggestive humor)
Running time: 1:38