HYDE PARK ON HUDSON and QUARTET have obvious similarities. They are both lushly and lovingly filmed in sunlit vistas and idealized countrysides. They are both loaded with superior talent, most of whom are way past 50, as the AARP magazine is quick to tout. The big difference between the two is substance. HYDE PARK ON HUDSON, despite its dealing with FDR's meeting with the new king of England, has little depth for several reasons. First, it is based on letters and memoirs about Daisy Suckley, a distant cousin of the president, and her "friendship" with him during the last part of his life. The film shows their growing fondness for each other, as they take long drives in the country and eventually become lovers. Parallel to this story is the arrival of the royal couple and major questions about our nation's support for England against Hitler and the decisions to serve hot dogs at an American style picnic. Although pleasant and good to look at, HYDE PARK ON HUDSON suffers from a weak script and direction. Bill Murray tries to imitate FDR, but the wit and gravitas is missing. The rest of the cast is excellent, especially Laura Linney as Daisy, but they are adrift in a rather pointless comic drama.
Far better and more satisfying as a story and a film experience, QUARTET, based on a popular English play, is Dustin Hoffman's directorial debut, and the result is a delightful melange of nostalgia and comedy. Beecham House, named after the legendary British conductor, is a converted country mansion that houses retired musicians of various stripes, from classical to variety hall. On any given day or night groups and soloists are still practicing and enjoying their golden years under expert care. To disrupt this pastoral ideal, the home is in financial need so plans are made for a big fundraiser. Into this situation steps a new tenant, the opera diva Jean Horton, played with proper hauteur by Maggie Smith. She seems the answer to the performers' prayers, but she cannot face singing again. Another complication is that her long ago former husband Reginald Paget (Tom Courtenay) would be part of their famed RIGOLETTO quartet, along with Pauline Collins as Cissy Robson, who drifts charmingly in and out of reality, and Billy Connolly as Wilf Bond, a rascally rake who provides most of the comedy in the film.
Needless to say, things will work out for everyone, but not before some wonderful musical interludes, dramatic clashes, terrific but understated acting, and some of the most beautiful natural photography, especially at dusk and night, that I have ever seen. The similarities between this film and last year's hit THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL are obvious, but QUARTET has a lighter, wistful touch and doesn't wallow in sorrow about growing old (and nobody dies). Cissy reminds us several times of Bette Davis' famed comment, "Growing old is not for sissies."
The characters in QUARTET embrace this challenge with wit and gusto. We should as well.