Film Review – Quartet
Where do you think great musical artists go once old age hits and their career takes the downslide? According to Dustin Hoffman’s Quartet (2012), they all go to a retirement home, play wonderful music, and get into all sorts of hijinks. That’s both the beauty and the detriment of what we are given. Actor-turned-director Hoffman, whose only other effort behind the camera was for Straight Time (1978, uncredited), creates a lighthearted ode to classical and musical theater, written by Ronald Harwood (adapted from his play). We get a sense that Hoffman has a fondness for this world, and he directs it as such. Never did I feel he was out of his element, and although it didn’t quite win me over in the end, it was a delight going through the experience. This was nice and easy, like crumpets and tea during a spring afternoon.
The premise is ingenious. Imagine being in a home where all the inhabitants are masters of classical music. Pianists, violinists, opera singers, etc., all under the same roof. It would make for an interesting living environment. As Hoffman moves the narrative along the vast rooms of the Beecham House retirement home, we pass by a number of artists practicing their craft. Constantly, we can hear someone off-camera or in another room playing their instrument. Many of the actors are famous British artists in real life, and during the credit sequence Hoffman lovingly showcases their past glory in a photo montage. What works best is how these people interact with each other—their attention to kitchen-sink realism is how they reminisce on old times, hash out bitter rivalries, and argue over who should be the musical lead and who should be the back-up.
Amongst this group of misfits is the “Quartet,” a group of retired opera singers whose performances have been legendary. As the film opens, we are introduced to three of them: Reginald (Tom Courtenay), Cissy (Pauline Collins), and Wilf (Billy Connolly). Each of the three has resigned themselves to the home. Reginald makes the most of his time by giving opera lectures to young people; Wilf spends his days sneaking alcohol and making not-so-subtle passes at the house director, Dr. Cogan (Sheridan Smith), and poor Cissy mostly listens to her CD player and waits for friends and relatives to visit. The fourth member, Jean (Maggie Smith), was a great star and diva, and has not quite grasped the idea of having to move into Beecham House. To complicate matters more, Jean was once in love with Reginald, and their break-up was everything but “pretty.”
This dynamic creates a problem as the house starts making plans for their yearly celebration. In honor of Verdi’s birthday (and to raise some money to keep the place open), Beecham House holds a gala where each of residents performs their talents. Well, the obvious suggestion would be for the Quartet to reunite and perform the music that made them famous in the first place. Easier said than done, with Jean entering full diva mode, stating that she will never sing again. For Reginald, he was so broken after splitting with Jean that he can barely tolerate being in the same room with her. And in the middle of it all is Wilf, who has become a mischievous naughty boy, and Cissy, whose unfortunate forgetfulness is starting to get the best of her. Will they ever be able to push their differences aside and be mature adults? I guess high school drama doesn’t have an expiration date, does it?
You can see where this is going from a mile away. The fact that the story is easily predictable is probably its biggest issue. We know the gala is going to happen, we know someone is going to get on that stage, but it’s just a matter of how they do it. There are some interesting ideas about growing old and accepting your place in the world, but we don’t get a chance to see them through, replaced instead with numerous scenes of elderly people acting silly. The third act ties the loose ends a bit too conveniently, having each character thread either end happily or simply get disregarded completely. And while Hoffman and Harwood build all the anticipation up to this big moment, what happens in the finale is unsatisfying, ultimately leaving us on an empty note (pardon the pun).
But if we ignore those quibbles, Quartet is one entertaining movie. I was surprised by how hilarious some of the jokes and inappropriate behavior were (I guess older people can get away with just about anything!). Billy Connolly and Maggie Smith are names I would least associate with opera singing, but they’re great actors, and they made me believe their roles. Pauline Collins was sweet and charming, Tom Courtenay was sympathetic as a sad sack of heartbreak, and even Michael Gambon stole scenes as the near-crazy performance conductor. If only it dug a little deeper into the characters’ inner workings, this could have really been something. But for what it was, I enjoyed it.
Final Grade: B