The retired musicians at Britain's Beecham House do not have the cash or relatives to ensure they pass their last years at home. But they still have their wit, their love of rehearsal and the fading vestiges of their talent.
That's the setting for Dustin Hoffman's dainty, adorable and adorably predictable film of Ronald Harwood's play. It's a celebration of great old actors set in a world of once-great singers. Hoffman's affection for them and the material shows in every frame.
Aged operatic divas — both female and male — and lesser mortals from the chorus, the orchestra or the English music halls fill the rooms of Beecham House, people who must live surrounded by music, preferably their own.
Dame Maggie Smith plays the diva among divas, Jean Horton. The ancient, imperious Jean, "as large as life, and twice as terrifying," is new to Beecham. That creates a stir.
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Cissy (Pauline Collins, delightful) was Jean's forgetfully addled supporting player in many an opera. And the old skirt chaser Wilfred (Billy Connolly, too young for his part but a hoot with a randy pick-up line) knew her well, too.
That's because his best friend, Reginald the tenor (Tom Courtenay), used to be married to Jean, who is the last person Reginald wants to see as "dignified senility" sets in.
Their awkwardness around this aloof "used to be somebody" is nothing compared to that of the director Cedric ("That's CEE-dric"), played to the hilt by Michael Gambon. He hears of Jean's arrival and immediately, the concert gala he's planning for the home's next fundraiser has a star attraction — if only Jean didn't declare, "I don't sing any more. And that's final."
The plot is slight, and its surprises are revealed long before they charmingly play out. But Hoffman anchors his movie in performance. String quartets, clarinet duets and piano solos are performed, and classical music war horses by Boccherini and his ilk litter the soundtrack like rose petals strewn down a red carpet. Real musicians and singers, veterans of the British stage, flesh out the supporting cast.
The other type of performance stands in the foreground. Smith is having the sort of late-career renaissance that can be compared only to America's Betty White. Here, she's not in period costume and looks years younger than her characters in Downton Abbey and Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. She breaks out of her imperious pigeon-hole and makes Jean vulnerable, unsure of herself, in between moments when she does her trademark pursed-lips putdown.
Courtenay's Reggie is kindly, curious (he studies rap to teach opera to high schoolers). Courtenay (The Dresser) makes him a combination of wounded and testy.
Collins, most famous for Shirley Valentine (1989), brings bubbly life to a senile dementia case that is standard issue in too many movies about the elderly.
Connolly — hurling crass pick-up lines at nurses and the doctor in charge (Sheridan Smith), emptying his bladder whenever and wherever he must — is a wise-cracking delight.
Hoffman doesn't break the mold, shock or awe anyone with his treatment of this comfort-food comedy. But he celebrates veteran entertainers, their vanities, foibles and undying passion for their art form in a way he probably wishes other directors would do for him. For show people, 75 isn't the end. It's just an excuse to take one more curtain call.
4 stars out of 5
PG-13 for brief strong language and suggestive humor. Weinstein Co. 1:39. Kentucky.