A film review by Craig J. Koban April 10, 2013
2013, PG-13, 99 mins.
2013, PG-13, 99 mins.
Jean: Maggie Smith /
Reggie: Tom Courtenay /
Wilf: Billy Connolly /
Cissy: Pauline Collins /
Cedric: Michael Gambon /
Anne: Gwyneth Jones
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.