Quartet (***½ / ****)
Starring: Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins
Director: Dustin Hoffman
Dustin Hoffman definitely knows a thing – or two – about making great first impressions.
44 years after his acting debut provided one of the most memorable performances in modern cinema, he helms a wonderful little picture centered around a retirement home for musicians that is one of the best films of the still-young year.
In a sly bit of irony, Hoffman was 31 when he appeared in The Graduate, and now he makes his directorial debut at 75. Screenwriter Ronald Harwood, who also penned the 1999 stage play, is 78. Neither have conformed to the standards of old age, just like their feisty onscreen protagonists.
Set in the fictional Beecham House for Retired Musicians (named after renowned British composer Sir Thomas Beecham), the story centers around a group of old friends, Cissy Robson (Pauline Collins, poignant), a good-natured soprano who’s sadly in the early stages of dementia; her stage partner Wilfred Bond (Billy Connolly), a flirty, salacious coot who was admitted after suffering a slight stroke; and Reginald Paget (Tom Courtenay), who opted to become a resident simply to remain close to his comrades (of life and singing, he says, “you can’t have both”) while holding classes at the home for bussed-in youngsters. Every October, Beecham House hosts a fundraising gala in honor of Verdi’s birthday with performances from the residents, and heading up the committee is the cantankerous Cedric Livingston, portrayed by Michael Gambon and dressed in perhaps unconscious imitation of Albus Dumbledore, with his garish headwear and flowing robes. Cedric is a rather unlikable curmudgeon who, in someone other than Gambon’s hands, would’ve bordered on insufferable.
However, Beecham soon gains a most famous newcomer: Jean Norton (Maggie Smith), an opera diva whose ego certainly hasn’t deteriorated over time even as she believes her voice has. She is welcomed warmly, but once the applause has faded, Jean struggles to come to grips with retirement life. Meanwhile, Reg is nowhere near as enthused about her arrival, as it reopens old wounds. On top of that, he, Cissy, and Wilf also hope to reunite with her to perform the quartet from Rigoletto at the gala, but Jean, perpetually submerged in self-pity, naturally refuses.
Quartet is exquisitely crafted and has such an air of effortlessness that sometimes you may not even feel like you’re watching a movie. From the stars to the supporting cast, the performances are so natural that it’s as if Beecham House is a real-life location and Hoffman simply set up cameras to observe the daily goings-on. In fact, many of the residents are played by actual singers, performers and instrumentalists (identified in a spectacular closing-credits sequence), among them the legendary Dame Gwyneth Jones as Anne Langley, fellow diva and Jean’s longtime rival; the subtle barbs they exchange in the dining room over breakfast are almost worth the price of a ticket alone. As a bonus, she gets in an awesome solo of Vissi d’Arte from Puccini’s Tosca at the gala, during which we see Jean amusingly stealing an envious peek through the backdrop curtain.
I won’t delve too much into the cast, because you know what you’re getting with a group of players of this caliber and it’s a given that there’s not going to be a poor or mawkish performance in sight. Courtenay is nicely understated and Connolly the reliably randy humorist, while Collins brings a childlike naivety to Cissy much like Betty White did in an another esteemed comedy centered around another legendary foursome of oldsters nearly three decades ago. Unsurprisingly, Smith is the standout; Jean’s protective air of superiority erodes when she finally has to face the music about her failed marriage with Reg in a powerful scene set inside a tranquil, empty church.
Harwood and Hoffman’s storytelling never delves into cheap sentimentality nor makes heroes or villains out of anyone. The characters are refreshingly never treated as special snowflakes in any way, but the jokes (of which Connolly naturally gets the majority) run a bit flat and nothing really stands out as a whole in regards to the dialogue, save for Cissy regularly referring to the Bette Davis quote “Old age is not for sissies.” This is not to say the dialogue is substandard in any way – heck, the ensemble could’ve recited the lines from Die Hard and made it an Oscar contender – but Quartet is at its very best when everything is silent and still, from minute-plus-long shots of Reg looking into the evening sky outside on a balcony while soaking in a cellist’s practicing in a nearby room, to Jean staring wistfully at a young girl as she wordlessly ponders her current existence. The camera invites us to read what’s behind Smith’s thoughtful eyes.
Speaking of the cinematography, by John de Borman, viewers are treated to incredible shots of the gorgeous countryside (filmed on location in Taplow, England) in and around the home’s grounds. My personal favorite was watching Reg and Jean taking a stroll and passing under a massive umbrella-like tree whose long, thick branches threaten to touch the ground, in addition to idyllic scenes of string quartets practicing in white-painted gazebos.
Yes, Quartet deals with the always-uncomfortable subject of aging and is meant to be nothing less than a feel-good movie, but it tackles both subjects with dignity and grace, much like the residents themselves do with their remaining years. In fact, while writing this review I was suddenly reminded of one particular line from an episode of Three’s Company: “We’ve got an old radio but it still makes beautiful music.”
© 2013 Jane F. Carlson