Beecham House is a retirement home for classically trained musicians who can’t afford to live anywhere else, and they’re excited. They’re excited not because of the annual gala they’re about to perform – a gala that will help raise money to keep the retirement home afloat – but because of the soon-to-be new arrival, though no one knows who that new arrival will be.
Quartet can boast a cast populated by great British veteran actors such as Michael Gambon (Dumbledore of the Harry Potter series), Pauline Collins (Shirley Valentine), Andrew Sachs (Manuel of TV’s Fawlty Towers), Tom Courtney (most famous in the great Billy Liar) and comedian Billy Connolly (the voice of King Fergus in Disney’s Brave). The dialog is peppered with continual witticisms as these talented retirees spend their days walking the halls of the stately home, throwing barbs at one other. “Your singing brought tears to my ears,” states one retiree to a fellow performer. “Saw your Carmen,” returns the singer. “I’ll never forget it. But I’ll try.” When another singer refuses to stop singing at a meeting, much to the displeasure of everyone else, Connolly grabs the man’s music sheet and declares, “Is there no end to your bloody talent?”
The new arrival turns out to be opera singer Jean Horton (the wonderful Maggie Smith) and it’s her presence that upsets everything and everyone. “You don’t know her,” warns Reg (Tom Courtney). Years ago, he was married to her for just a few hours before they separated and he has never recovered. Viewers to TV’s hugely popular series Downton Abbey will know how effective Maggie Smith is at portraying someone who spends their life looking down their nose at everyone else. In Quartet she appears softer and slightly younger than we have seen her in the past, but that hasn’t softened her ability to deliver a snarky remark when required. When the young doctor who manages Beecham House explains to Horton how the chair lift that assists the elderly works, Horton responds with disdain, “A chair lift? What do I do when I get to the top? Ski down?” When asked to participate in the on-coming gala, Horton simply refuses. “I don’t sing anymore,” she states, “And that’s final.”
Like the stately home, Quartet is built on solid foundation. The cinematography is always well-framed and nicely shot and director Dustin Hoffman (yes, the Dustin Hoffman) populates the widescreen to great effect. Whether the film is displaying an exterior or interior set, there’s great fun to be had exploring the design of the surroundings as well as watching the performers, and even though Quartet isn’t incisive enough to be considered a serious attempt to look at the real problems and fears of aging, there are moments of insight. When Tom Courtney teaches opera to a class of teenagers he explains its history stating that at one time opera was for the masses, but then, “…Rich people took over, took the soul out of it and made it into something that it’s not.”
Quartet is actor Dustin Hoffman’s first work as a director. You might think that a genteel British comedy is an odd choice for an American performer to direct, but on closer examination, maybe not. Quartet is pure and simply an actor’s film, and if there’s one area of expertise that Hoffman would know the most about it’s acting. Plus, at the age of 70, if there’s something else Hoffman must presumably be aware of it’s the need to age with dignity, something that every character in this appealing and hugely entertaining film desires.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 97 minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)