Film: Quartet

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Quartet | Director Dustin Hoffman | Score: 5.2

You don’t have to work terribly hard to figure out why a greatly acclaimed and well-seasoned actor would choose to make a rare directorial effort with a film whose basis consists of four aged opera singers all living together in a musician’s retirement home, getting over their personal vanities and performing in public once again. After all, if any artist can understand the pressures and expectations — and tremendously intricate personal politics — of a group of egocentric fellow artists working together in harmony, it’s a thespian, themselves no stranger to such vainglorious ensembles.

It’s also nearly too perfect an analogy. Working from a stage play by Ronald Harwood (who adapted it for the screen), the film gives us four highly decorated British opera singers in the form of three highly decorated British actors — and one highly decorated Scotsman — each nearing what might be considered the twilight years of their career.

Wilf (Billy Connolly) is a lovable Scottish rogue, quick with an innuendo to his fellow residents, or the bemused staff, including the fetching female doctor (Sheridan Smith) who runs the enterprise; his best friend Reginald (Tom Courtenay), is a somewhat rigid straight man to Wilf’s impertinences, but harbors a long-wounded heart; Sissy (Pauline Collins) is a batty-but-endearing blast of sunshine. The three of them have very different reactions to the sudden arrival of the newest star to Beecham House, diva extraordinaire Jean Horton (Maggie Smith), with whom they all worked on a legendary recording of Verdi’s “Regoletto”: Sissy is thrilled to see her old friend again; Reginald is crushed to be in such proximity with the woman who devastated him so many years ago; and Wilf is concerned for his friend’s well being.

Jean, for her part, wants very little to do with any of them, at least at first. Equal parts crestfallen and obdurate, she is, at first, content to hole up in her rather spectacular room, until her three former co-stars begin to coax her back to the stage with them. There is an annual concert put on by the residents, you see, a celebration of Verdi that serves to provide the funding for the house for the rest of the year. In desperate need of a show-stopping act to sell the space out, the haughty director of the benefit (Michael Gambon) pleads with the other three to convince Jean to reunite with them.

If the plot sounds a bit too close to The Blues Brothers, you needn’t worry. The film provides very little in the way of actual anxiety about the great, well-manicured manor being shuttered, it’s merely the basis of a plot device designed to lure the great diva back into the here and now and out of the remorseful past.

Hoffman, for his part, has little care with the plot anyway, it’s clear from the get-go with the opening shots of the residents of the house (many of whom actual professional musicians), waking up and getting on with the warming up of their instruments, the idea that really grabs him is a community that, while elderly, still holds fast to the idea of art-as-salvation.

This is largely and unsurprisingly an actor-driven conceit, a showcase for some older British thespians to prove they can still deliver the goods, and in this manner the film is a grand success. The ensemble work extremely well together — highlighted of course by Smith and Courtenay, who could hold a master class on character nuance — even if the film itself is something rather slight.

It’s a light, ensemble comedy in spirit — inoffensive and sensible — with a bit of near magic realism at its core. “Getting old isn’t for sissies,” Sissy keeps quoting the infamous Bettie Davis line, but isn’t it delightful to think of a way you can grow old in a community of loving fellow artists, who all encourage you to pursue your art and raison d’etre?

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Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and here.  You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.

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