It’s an interesting time for an industry that makes most of its money from a viewing audience that hasn’t yet reached 30. One of last year’s biggest art house hits was the veteran actor-filled “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” The French import “Amour” is currently being showered with nominations and awards, and its two lead actors are in their 80s. And now we’ve got “Quartet,” which focuses on the British residents in a home for retired musicians.
Adapted by Ronald Harwood from his own 1999 play and directed by first-timer Dustin Hoffman, this is a light little film that celebrates the creative spirit, looks at the ups and downs of longtime friendship, and isn’t afraid to address the ravages of aging, which could be hiding around any corner.
The film’s title refers to four opera singers – Jean (Maggie Smith), Reg (Tom Courtenay), Wilf (Billy Connolly), and Cissy (Pauline Collins) – who, having sung together in concert and on record, now live at Beecham House, a beautiful estate tucked into the idyllic countryside.
But there’s some turmoil (call it drama) to go along with the peace and joy and constant flow of music. Jean is a new arrival, and it’s made very clear, very soon, that she and Reg have some sort of checkered past. There are health issues: One retiree has dizzy spells, another has brief bouts of memory loss. And Beecham itself is in trouble, as there are money hassles, and the place might be shut down.
But wait, the pompous resident music director Cedric (Michael Gambon) believes that if they sell enough tickets to the upcoming annual Verdi gala (everyone is expected to take part!), maybe Beecham can be saved. It sounds like an updated and outdated version of “The Blues Brothers,” where Jake and Elwood put on a concert to save their old boarding school, but “Quartet” aims for sweetness rather than outrageousness.
Sometimes it goes too far in that direction and comes across as a bit precious. There’s bickering, but most of it is good-natured. We’re shown what, in certain cases, the results of a stroke can be, and in this one, they’re funny (one of the characters has lost the ability to censor himself, and pops off some memorable one-liners).
But back to the film’s title. It also refers to the fact that our four central characters are quite famous for a “Rigoletto” they once performed, especially for its well-known quartet. And wouldn’t ticket sales just soar if the four of them got back together at the Verdi gala to do it again?
Of course, more of that drama ensues. But Hoffman has paid attention to the folks who have directed him over the years, and he has made sure to give plenty of space for his actors to shine in bringing their characters to life. He doesn’t display the skill of knowing how to really open the piece up, so it still has the feeling of a stage play. But the film is so filled with entertaining and insightful talk, as well as bursts of music being performed on camera, there’s no problem with it remaining on an intimate scale.
For an extra treat, make sure to stay for the closing credits.
Ed Symkus covers movies for GateHouse Media.
Written by Ronald Harwood; directed by Dustin Hoffman
With Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins, Michael Gambon