British actress Pauline Collins pays lip service to Verdi in Dustin Hoffman’s new film Quartet.

It’s always a risk producing a film that requires actors to learn an instrument. Think of Russell Crowe’s valiant attempt at learning the violin for Master and Commander (who could ask for a better teacher than Richard Tognetti?), or Christopher Walken and Philip Seymour Hoffman wielding instruments in the recent film A Late Quartet. Even with Hollywood’s most consummate professionals, any discerning movie buff may get the feeling that there’s something not quite right…

Pauline Collins is very much aware of the difficulty actors face in appearing to be convincing musicians. In Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut, Quartet, she plays Cecily Robson, a retired opera singer. “You take a lifetime to train as an opera singer,” she says humbly. “You can’t take four actors with moderately adequate voices and make them into opera stars.”

Collins came to film later in her life after a successful stage and television career (she had a memorable role in Upstairs Downstairs and later starred in the one-woman-play and film Shirley Valentine). While Collins has never sung on stage, she’s no stranger to the opera world. “I’ve always liked to sing. I come from a family who sang songs round the piano, and my grandmother was an opera singer. She had an extraordinary voice, a very high coloratura – you know: a glass-breaking voice.”

An adaptation of Ron Harwood’s musical of the same name, Quartet is set at Beecham House, a retirement home for musicians. Each year Beecham House puts on a gala concert to celebrate Verdi’s birthday, but this year the arrival of Jean, a diva (Maggie Smith), throws the residents’ equilibrium out the window. The “quartet” of the title refers to characters played by Smith and Collins, as well as Billy Connolly and Tom Courtenay. All four had singing lessons and rehearsed weekly on set, although Smith says she and Connolly were apprehensive about emulating professional opera singers. “We wanted to look the part,” explains Collins, “and the original idea was that we should be dubbed by proper opera singers, but then Dustin decided you would never actually see the performers; you would only see scraps, like people bowing and people clapping.”

An intriguing solution from Hoffman, a first-time director but a film veteran perhaps sympathetic to his actors. Nevertheless, the foursome continued to rehearse the gala concert scene with help from a support cast of professional musicians, who supplied “a wink and a nod” to help with cues. 

Collins says it was a pleasure to explore classical music in a role, having inherited an appreciation for the artform from her family. “I do love Puccini. I know it’s a bit kind of naff to love somebody so romantic, but I love Puccini, and I love Russian composers.” She has a confession, though: “I’m not so keen on – I know it’s awful – but Mozart. I remember as a child singing a little operetta which he wrote when he was 12, called Bastien und Bastienne, and I thought, ‘I don’t like this, it’s diddly’. It lacked the passion of Puccini.”

In Quartet, Collins faced an added challenge of portraying a character that suffers from vascular dementia. “I wanted her to do all the things that people with dementia do – a lot of people who have the beginnings, and begin to feel it, make every effort to conceal it and to make a joke of it…Sometimes she’s funny, and in the beginning people laugh, and then a couple of times when she has an episode, they realise ‘this could be serious’.”

With such a delicate subject to portray and a 75-year-old director at the helm, Collins says the core cast couldn’t help but examine their own views on ageing. “We were all of an age, and we all had common memories, and in a curious way it made us all a little bit younger again,” she reflects. “What did come across was the fact that it feels like a real friendship between the four of us – with all the attendant squabbles that you get with a long friendship.”

Quartet also explores an issue that is sensitive not just for musicians – particularly singers – but also for actors: when to stop clinging to the performing world and retire? To Collins, it’s simply a question of continuing  to enjoy her craft. “There’s no reason why you should ever stop as a musician. Actors tend to go on as long as they’re able to learn a few lines and walk across the stage without banging into the furniture.”

Billy Connolly had another, perhaps more succinct summary for the film’s lasting message: “Don’t die until you die.”

Quartet is playing with limited release nationally. www.quartetmovie.com.au.