It almost seems like film studios would rather make movies for newborns than the so-called “mature” demographic. “Coming to a theater near you – “Teething 2.” “Look out as the Mighty Molar goes rogue!”
But this film season, the studios have provided not, one, not two, but three films geared for people and starring people who have long since traded their Clearasil for Bengay. First, there was “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” Next came “Amour” and now arrives “Quartet.” “Marigold” takes a feel-good approach to the subject of aging where love can be lost and found among the retired set even when the hotel accommodations aren’t exactly geared for romance. “Amour” exists on the other end of the spectrum. It is unrelentingly stark as a French couple tries to cope with debilitating illness. “Quartet” finds some middle ground, though it definitely leans more toward uplifting than depressing. What all three films have in common is magnificent casts, proving that advancing years haven’t dulled their acting skills.
“Quartet” represents the first credited directorial effort of Dustin Hoffman (he began directing “Straight Time” but turned over those duties to Ulu Grosbard). That Hoffman would direct a character-driven film is not exactly a shocker. Wouldn’t you love to see him at the helm of a “Transformers”-type movie? “That robot didn’t blow up with enough feeling. Let’s shoot that scene again!”
Hoffman must have felt like he had died and gone to thespian heaven working with a cast that includes Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins and Michael Gambon. Ratso Rizzo invades Masterpiece Theatre.
“Quartet” will not only be a joy for fans of acting but for music lovers as it takes place in a home of retired British musicians where classical music plays constantly. Its cast also includes many real-life musicians who had successful careers back in the day. The ending credits show photos of them during their prime. One character, a prima donna of the first order, is played by operatic superstar Dame Gwyneth Jones, who can still sing at 76.
As for the plot, well, it plays out like a Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney movie. What do you do when facing a problem? You put on a show. Here, the retirement home, the strikingly gorgeous Beecham House, has financial worries so a gala is being put on to honor Giuseppe Verdi’s birthday. The film opens during a rehearsal with party organizer Cedric Livingston (Gambon) dealing with the musicians with all the sensitivity of a pit viper.
The film focuses on three former opera singers, Reginald Paget (Courtenay), Wilf Bond (Connolly) and Cissy Robson (Collins), who performed together in a memorable performance of Verdi’s “Rigoletto.” When the fourth member of the quartet, Jean Horton (Smith), arrives at the home, sparks don’t just fly. They ignite a conflagration. Not only is Jean is a diva supreme, she is Reggie’s ex-wife. Their divorce wasn’t exactly amicable as she put her solo career above all else, and he is not pleased to see her at the house. He complains that he wanted to transition from “opera singer to old fart” in peace. Her arrival seems to doom that plan. For a little drama, the trio try to convince Jean to reunite with them and perform for the gala. Think she’ll like the idea?
Page 2 of 2 - Expect critics to harp on the film’s stereotypes. Connolly provides the comedy as the randy senior while Collins’ Cissy acts as the flighty one whose advancing senility gets played both for laughs and sadness. Gambon gets to be cantankerous and Smith the sharp-tongued diva. “I never took less than 12 curtain calls,” she boasts.
The script by Ronald Hardwood, based on his play, comes loaded with snappy one-liners and put-downs. “Your singing brought tears to my ears,” for example. But it also spends plenty of time examining how one deals with Father Time. “Why do we have to get old?” asks Jean. “That’s what people do,” replies Reggie. Cissy, meanwhile, observes that “old age isn’t for sissies.”
For a change of pace, young people arrive at the home where Reggie teaches them about opera and they try to teach him about rap. While Smith can pilfer scenes with the best of them and apparently has to be cast in all movies of this type (she was in “Marigold,” too), Courtenay is the one who gives “Quartet” its gravitas. He could have been the one-dimensional stuffed shirt but manages to imbue his character with humanity. His Reggie could have easily descended into grumpiness and world-weariness.
While the film doesn’t avoid the hardships of advancing age – characters do get sick – it doesn’t shove them in your face like a certain French film that has become a critical darling. Cinema verite, don’t you know. Let’s just say “Quartet” may not be as hard-hitting and realistic as “Amour,” but it is certainly more entertaining. Not that a film has to be entertaining to be good.
Hoffman, who as an actor made a career out of excelling in serious roles, gets to demonstrate a more playful side as a director here. He also makes excellent use of the house and the beautiful grounds to keep the film from feeling claustrophobic.
Much has been said about the therapeutic powers of music, and this film presents Exhibit A. It’s certainly better than the alternative, Reggie points out: being the guest of honor at the crematorium.
“Quartet” is rated PG-13 for brief strong language and suggestive humor. Cast includes Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins and Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon. Directed by Dustin Hoffman.