Quartet (2012)

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 01/30/13 14:56:30

"Getting old's not for sissies, but it's not the end of the world."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

"Quartet" is directed by Dustin Hoffman, who has spent roughly the last forty-five years in front of the camera with just one abortive attempt to go behind it. So it should be no surprise at all that he sticks to what he knows and makes a movie that is just full of acting. The good news is, it's also full of fine actors who are well worth the price of admission.

The Beecham Home for Retired Musicians is pretty nice, as those places go: A beautiful old house, well-maintained grounds, and a chance to live out one's latter years surrounded by friends with whom one shares a common interest. Among the residents are Wilfred Bond (Billy Connolly), whose roguish nature is only exaggerated by the stroke he suffered some years back (or so he says); Reginald Paget (Tom Courtenay), Wilf''s best friend who fills his time teaching opera to local teenagers; Cicely "Sissy" Robson (Pauline Collins), a bubbly sort whose dementia is getting worse; and Cedric Livingston (Michael Gambon), who is busily planning the annual fundraising gala held on Verdi's birthday. They're soon joined by Jean Horton (Maggie Smith), famous in part for a Verdi quartet she performed with Reg, Wilf, and Cissy - and for having briefly been married to Reg - who naturally has trouble adjusting to her new circumstances.

There is, of course, talk of how Beecham may have to close without the funds raised by the gala, and wouldn't a reunion of these four great operatic voices on stage be a fantastic draw, but to the credit of Hoffman and Ronald Harwood (adapting his own play), that's not a source of suspense so much as it's a reason to keep the characters from staying where they start the movie - a little push in the right direction, not a large one. It's there, it gives the movie a logical place to end and reason to do certain things simultaneously rather than in sequence, but the problem to be solved never comes close to overshadowing the actors and their performances.

If this ensemble has leads, they're probably Tom Courtenay and Maggie Smith. They're both old pros who infuse every moment of their performance with their characters' history, and complement each other without making their characters polar opposites. Courtenay is lean and self-effacing as Reg, with a great deal of pride underneath his humility - it's especially notable when Reg is speaking to a group of teenagers, trying to impart his love of opera without speaking down to them. Smith meanwhile seems to fill the screen whenever she enters it as Jean, with a sharp tongue and an ego that hides a painful awareness of the arc of her life. The pair work well together, with passions visible but often displayed with mature reserve.

As good as they are, though,it's Billy Connolly and Pauline Collins who give the film a great deal of its life. Connolly has a role that feels like it might be written specifically for him - Wilf is big and earthy in personality, occasionally crude, but with a sneaky, observant intelligence that gives his jokes a little extra punch. Collins may actually give the best performance of the movie, playing Cissy as comedically spacey but with a big heart that keeps her from being a joke. For as much as she's very funny, the moments when the movie focuses on this behavior as deterioration feel very true to life, with body language that emphasizes muscle memory, getting what she remembers right, and hitting the feeling of being in the present and the past at once.

There's also nice turns from Michael Gambon and Sheridan Smith (as the young doctor in charge of the facility), but a great deal off the charm comes from how Hoffman and company seem to enjoy just observing the setting. It is as peacefully and tranquilly English as one can imagine, with rolling fields surrounding a manor made of nicely weathered wood. Not just the residents' instruments but their radios and record players tend to be objects that physically represent their salad days (even Cissy's handheld CD player fits - it's old but high-tech enough to feel like a therapeutic tool). There are scenes which do nothing to advance the plot that show the residents teaching children and listening to them play, or practicing for the gala (and later performing in it). Most of these background characters are the real thing, and by taking those breaks the filmmakers show that their talents, even when diminished, are remembered and appreciated, and that they deserve to be passed on.

Of course, a number of exterior scenes tend to be sunsets; Hoffman doesn't shy from the mortality the place represents. But even when the story's at its thinnest, there is still joy to this movie, whether that of music, love, passing on a legacy, or friendship, and it is in its way all the stronger for its human scale.

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