Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB.5. United Kingdom, 2012. Headline Pictures, BBC Films, DCM Productions, Finola Dwyer Productions, Wildgaze Films. Screenplay by Ronald Harwood, based on his play. Cinematography by John de Borman. Produced by Finola Dwyer, Stewart Mackinnon. Music by Dario Martinelli. Production Design by Andrew McAlpine. Costume Design by Odile Dicks-Mireaux. Film Editing by Barney Pilling. Golden Globe Awards 2012. Toronto International Film Festival 2012.
A retirement home for successful classical musicians is the setting for this comedy adapted from Ronald Harwood’s play, which also marks the directorial debut of actor Dustin Hoffman. Maggie Smith plays a world-famous opera singer who has decided to enter her dotage, made worse when it turns out that her ex-husband (Tom Courtenay), with whom she experienced a bitter separation years earlier, is also living at the same home. The central movement of the plot works up to a gala performance that the residents put on annually to help fund their beautiful abode, which in this particular year we are told (by a nagging Michael Gambon) is pivotal for keeping the place going. Courtenay, Pauline Collins and Billy Connolly come up with the idea of doing a reunion quartet with Smith, but as she gave up singing years earlier is absolutely unwilling to participate and is quite adamant, violent at one point, about her decision. Hoffman has no idea what to do with a script that has no strong plot or character development: watching these great British actors put rich personalities on the big screen is never boring, but as it never particularly focuses on their emotional ripening in any way (Smith shows up sorry she hurt Courtenay and stays that way until he accepts her apology) nor a particularly dynamic narrative (they begin planning a performance and then put it on), it is hard to determine where its anchor lies. A few exchanges of good dialogue make it feel like a really great play is being performed in another room, the rest of the scenes are set-up or filler that just kill time (Smith is the central figure of the piece and barely shows up until twenty minutes in to a ninety minute film). What Hoffman does really well as a director, however, is guide his actors to deep and surprisingly significant places. Smith does such a terrific job of stripping away the mannerisms of the last three decades of Gosford Park caricatures and she shows, this late in her career, a great amount of new control and depth (when she does apologize to her ex-husband, she really brings forth a lifetime of regret). The film is well worth watching if you want to see a movie about seniors that is not pandering to inspirational revelations about finding whimsical joy in a person’s twilight years, particularly the delight to be found in Harwood subverting that expectation by having the character most likely to be in a twee Hallmark television movie (Collins) actually have mental derangement. Seeing a new side of Smith really is something to behold, but don’t be surprised if you’re confused by the overall experience when it is over.