A film review by Craig J. Koban April 10, 2013


2013, PG-13, 99 mins.

Jean: Maggie Smith / Reggie: Tom Courtenay / Wilf: Billy Connolly / Cissy: Pauline Collins / Cedric: Michael Gambon / Anne: Gwyneth Jones

Directed by Dustin Hoffman / Written by Ronald Harwood, based on his play.

QUARTET is a film of some odd and nagging contradictions.  It’s sweet natured, but slight.  It’s enjoyable, but disposable.  Its setting is unique, but has an aura of overt familiarity to it.  It’s resoundingly well performed, but by actors whom have all done considerably better.  

Yet, there’s no denying that the film – which marks the directorial debut of Dustin Hoffman, who has made an iconic name for himself as an actor for nearly five decades – has its inherent whimsical charms, especially when it lets a slew of truly talented and legendary actors to take center stage and allows for the otherwise pedestrian material to be embraced that much easier. 

I can perhaps understand Hoffman’s attraction and fondness for this material.  QUARTET is about aging performers – musicians and tenors, to be precise – that are now wise old geezers living in a luxurious and cozy retirement home for their kind in the British countryside.  Clearly, Hoffman himself is no spring chicken anymore either (he’s 75-years-old and his greatest performances are far behind him now), so I can see how he relates to the characters here: elderly and once-esteemed performers that – despite their increasing physical and emotional frailty – still have a zest to entertain.  QUARTET, through Hoffman’s astute handling of the material, shows an unbridled love for music, the stage, the fine art of performing live in front of an eager audience, and for the souls that are in the winter of their lives that still wish to do what they did best in decades past. 

Based on a revered play of the same name by Ronald Harwood, QUARTET tells the story of Beecham House, a retirement home quite unlike any that I’ve ever seen before in reality and in the movies.  It’s a grand, opulent, and exquisite castle that serves as a communal dwelling for highly gifted musicians that can’t look after themselves anymore.  Despite everyone’s ripe old age, the residents here still clamor for their musical passions of their youth, which leads to some unexpectedly hilarious rivalries developing within the home’s walls.  Three very established and noteworthy residents are former opera singers, Reg (Tom Courtenay), Cissy (Pauline Collins), and Wilf (Billy Connolly) and together they form a very tightly knit trio that likes the status quo of their living conditions. 



Things change, though, with the unexpected appearance Jean Horton (Maggie Smith), another lauded singer from the past that previously collaborated with Reg, Wilf, and Cissy, that is until she became enraptured by fame and acclaim and broke Reg’s heart in the process (they were once married, but she committed adultery).  Initially, Reg wants absolutely nothing to do with Jean and she wishes to have nothing to do with most of the other residents.  While Reg and Jean do what they can to find a way to live amicably together in the home, Wilf and Cissy decide that they would like to perform the Act 3 quartet (“Bella figlia dell’amore”) from Verdi’s “Rigoletto.”  Much of the rest of the film is an attempt to lure in Reg and Jean to join them up on stage to perform it at a fund raising gala for the home, but convincing them to put the past aside proves to be a thorny task. 

It’s very difficult to not think of last year’s THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL when thinking about QUARTET, mostly because both films contain astonishing narrative and thematic similarities.  Both are highly safe, mechanically and predictably scripted audience pandering efforts that show a fairly uncomplicated and rosy outlook on old age (certainly, approaching death and dealing with illness and disease is not as fun as these films demonstrate).  Also, both films feature pleasant and acclaimed English (and in QUARTET’s case, one Scott!) actors playing off of one another to sublime effect.  Lastly, both films show their respective golden years men and women coming together – despite differences – in fairly lavish and exotic surroundings.  Nothing QUARTET does in particularly groundbreaking: it’s the very epitome of conventional. 

Yet, I will at least concede that the setting of the musician retirement home in QUARTET is different and quite intriguing.  Hoffman’s direction is quite restrained and understated in exploring this distinctive world, as he lets his camera slowly track across the expansive hallways and large meeting areas.  Perhaps most rewarding is how Hoffman – like the Clint Eastwoods and Robert Redfords before him - uses a less-is-more style to allow for the actors and their interplay to come to the forefront.  The best actors-turned-directors come from a creative prerogative of understanding the nuance of performance craft and, in turn, understand that a slick, glossy, and over stylized aesthetic sheen would overwhelm the drama and acting.  With nearly 50 years in as an actor, Hoffman is in clearly in a position to know what to do with his stars.  It’s quite amazing that he has waited all these years to direct now, because he seems like a natural. 

Again, the faults of the scripting are mostly undone by the insurmountable appeal and charm of the actors here, as most of them – as did the performers in THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL – intuitively know how to make obligatory and predictable material feel authentic.  The dialogue and tit-for-tat exchanges between the residents are crafty and frequently funny.  Of all the residents, I perhaps liked three the most: Maggie Smith’s (also from MARIGOLD HOTEL) brings a world-weariness, melancholic regret, and feisty toughness to just about any role.  I also howled at Michael Gambon’s outlandish and flamboyant turn as a retired director who has loved just about anything he’s been associated with; his festering narcissism is a hoot.  I liked Billy Connolly’s Wilf the best, mostly because he goes out of his way to constantly relay how a past stroke has stunted his ability to verbally repress himself, especially in front of the young and attractive nurses and orderlies.   Besides being amusingly sex-starved, Wilf expunges a joy in living in the most miniscule of day-to-day activities: when he bites into his marmalade-flavored toast, he joyously proclaims, “It tastes like Christmas!” 

There is euphoric joy to be had in watching these seasoned actors perform, to be sure, and lesser talent certainly would have brought down an already contrived screenplay.  I just wished the film had more to actually say about the obvious troubling issues with getting old, many of which are only dealt with in the background, not to mention that the climatic final act where the aging tenors reclaim their glory days on the stage again is an unmitigated letdown in terms of basic execution (you’ll know what I mean when you see it).  Yet, for all of its shamelessly sentimentalized scripting, QUARTET has decent and a noble message at its core that’s hard for even cynical filmgoers to hate.  It fully embraces the arts and touts the virtues of burying the hatchet and past indiscretions to re-discover love and friendship in the present.  Yeah, this has all been done before, but QUARTET understands this and maintains a pleasing and happy-go-lucky melody throughout that’s infectious.  

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