The first thing you'll want to know, as you watch Quartet, is where first-time director Dustin Hoffman shot his movie. The setting is Beecham House, a fictional home for retired English musicians, and the scent of the idyllic estate's cool, green lawns and smartly tended gardens wafts down from the screen on the Buckinghamshire breeze. (The answer: Hedsor House, a Georgian marvel in that county.)
That you wonder about geography and architecture before pondering the drama at hand is one of Quartet's numerous postcard-sized pleasures. It's a curiosity stirred not by boredom but by a principal notion at work in Ronald Harwood's script (adapted from his 1999 play): Why rage against the dying of the light when there's still croquet to be played and Verdi to be sung (in whatever register remains available)?
So, yes, Quartet — in which several septuagenarian British actors give sly, noble performances as septuagenarian artists of another stage — is a close cousin to last year's keep-moisturized-and-carry-on British hit, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. And, yes, it's as light as a grey-wagtail feather carried on that sylvan wind. But Hoffman's picture also shares a bloodline with an old-school genre, the backstage musical, and his cast brings infectious relish to the form's de rigueur roles (diva, understudy, jilted divo, etc.).
To say much about Harwood's wispy plot invites prediction, but of course the poster alone offers a reliable forecast. The pastured opera singers played by Tom Courtenay (quietly powerful), Billy Connolly (very good in a role planned for Albert Finney) and Pauline Collins (touching, if overly daft) are unexpectedly joined by Maggie Smith (as Maggie as she wants to be). Smith's faded soprano was once briefly married to Courtenay's heart-bruised tenor. Can the four of them (under the wilting gaze of Michael Gambon's foppish impresario) make a little Rigoletto together again?
Hoffman, 75 and a part-time Kensington resident himself, embraces his inner Anglophile with a crew led by cinematographer John de Borman and editor Barney Pilling, U.K. aces whose shared credits include Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and An Education. And he uses his end credits to pay tribute to the stage careers of the character actors and real-life musicians who populate Beecham House, a gentlemanly tip of the top hat that feels sincere rather than mawkish. (One of Harwood's inspirations is worth revisiting: Tosca's Kiss, Daniel Schmid's 1984 documentary about Casa Verdi, the Milan retirement home founded by the composer.) It's a respectable effort, neither overreach nor tour de force. And if you suspect that's the point, you're also glad he made it.