By Julie Gordon
TORONTO (Reuters) - At the age of 75, Dustin Hoffman has finally made the leap from acting to directing with "Quartet," a pitch-perfect comedy that charmed critics and audiences alike at the Toronto Film Festival.
Shot in the British countryside, the film centers on a trio of retired opera singers happily living out their sunset years in an idyllic care home for aging musicians.
The peace is broken by the arrival of a mysterious new resident, who turns out to be their former singing partner, and the ex-wife of one of the principal characters.
For Hoffman, stepping behind the camera for the first time after nearly five decades as an actor, it was the script for "Quartet" that convinced him the time was right to direct.
"When I read it on the airplane, I started crying and I don't really respond to scripts that way," Hoffman said.
"One of the things I'm drawn to is what is invisible in our society," he added. "And with aging, at least in America, people put their parents in nursing homes to get rid of them. There's a shying away from the inevitable, I guess."
Adapted by Ronald Harwood from his own play, "Quartet" has received largely positive reviews and has drawn comparisons to 2011 charmer "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," which was an unexpected success at the box office.
Actress Dame Maggie Smith plays Jean Horton, a once-famous diva whose arrival at Beecham House shatters the peaceful existence of her ex-husband Reggie, played by Tom Courtenay.
Rounding out the principle cast is Billy Connolly, who steals almost every scene as the wise-cracking and raunchy Wilfred, and Pauline Collins as kind-hearted Cecily, whose slow fall into dementia brings both comedy and drama to the film.
With their retirement home in peril of closing because of lack of funds, the trio must convince Jean to step out of retirement and join them on stage at the home's annual fundraiser concert in honor of Verdi's birthday.
There is also the predictable lost-love subplot, with Jean and Reggie navigating the land-mines of their failed marriage, which lasted just a few hours.
"Quartet", a Weinstein Company release, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sunday to an enthusiastic crowd. The performances of the four veteran British actors are already generating some early award season buzz.
Screen International singled out Connolly's scene-stealing turn as Wilfred and described Hoffman's directorial debut as "an affectionate, moving and charming film."
Variety said that "Quartet", which features an ensemble cast of real retired musicians and opera stars, "offers a spirited portrait of souls who, when that final curtain-call comes, intend to go singing, dancing and swearing into that good night."
The Hollywood Reporter, noting the film will appeal to older audiences, described it as an actors' film about performers where Hoffman can flex his muscles and experience.
For Hoffman, who has won two Academy Awards for his acting, the key to hitting the high notes with "Quartet" was working with the actors to find the right mix of humor and emotion.
"Some directors are collaborative, some you have to wrestle with," said Hoffman of his directorial approach. "I had these wonderful actors, and I said: 'We're not here to play characters. What do we feel at this age? Let that come out.'"
(Reporting by Julie Gordon; editing by Patricia Reaney and David Gregorio)