Bravo to this lilting 'Quartet'
Posted January 24, 2013
The picturesque retirement residence in Quartet could be The Best Stately Marigold Hotel.
An amiable British ensemble cast and an admirable directorial debut by Dustin Hoffman makes Quartet (* * * out of four; rated PG-13; opens wide Friday) a thoroughgoing charmer.
A predictable story is anchored by superb performances, particularly that of the estimable Maggie Smith as former diva Jean Horton who comes to stay at Beecham House, a retirement home for aging musicians in the British countryside.
Hoffman directs with elegance, allowing the denizens to be dignified, as well as adorable. We get a strong sense of each major character. Too many films make elderly folks come off like doddering buffoons. These characters feel universal in their emotions and make the same mistakes that those far younger might, emphasizing their humanity over their encroaching mortality.
Billy Connolly plays Wilf, a man who is equal parts randy, affable, garrulous, caring and intelligent. That is, he seems authentic.
Wilf embraces life in all its facets. With unbridled enthusiasm he urges a fellow resident to sample a delicacy: "You've got to try this jam, it's unbelievable. It's like eating Christmas."
While his attitude is infectious, he later concedes: "I do hate getting older. I hate every bloody moment of it."
Tom Courtenay plays Reggie, a less ebullient, but equally likable, gent. He instructs high school youths who visit the country estate, comparing the emotional nature of opera to rap music, in one of the film's best scenes. His performance conveys depth, intelligence and decency.
Pauline Collins is Cecily, who at times is dotty and forgetful, but other times wistful and kind.
The wafer-thin plot focuses on a concert held to celebrate Verdi's birthday. Wilf, Reggie and Cecily, as well as most of the rest of the residents of the beautifully maintained Beecham House, take part in the show. But with the arrival of Jean, who refuses to participate, harmony within the gracious house is upset.
Reggie has a complicated history with Jean. When he hears she's moving in to the retirement home, he threatens to leave.
"I wanted a dignified senility," he says. "Fat chance now that she's here."
For her part, Jean is both imperious and apprehensive. "I never took less than 12 curtain calls," she arrogantly tells Cecily.
But on the road to Beecham House she nervously mutters some prepared statements: "I apologize for hurting you. Please be kind," and "We were different people then."
Reggie is still smarting from the way she trampled on his heart years before. Jean makes overtures to him and then ends up crying out: "Oh, why do we have to get old?"
He answers curtly: "It's what people do."
The film shows its appreciation of classical music and opera by having actual veteran performers interspersed among the cast.
Perhaps because he is an actor, Hoffman allows his cast plenty of time to inhabit their characters, as the film unfolds at a leisurely pace. Based on the 1999 play by Ronald Harwood, this warm-hearted tale employs a subtle sense of humor throughout. It's a quintessentially British story that the 75-year-old American directs with a strikingly delicate touch.
With their distinctive wit, Smith, Courtenay and Connolly are highlights. Michael Gambon (Professor Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series), the resident impresario, is the only character whose bluster verges on cartoonish.
Fans of Downton Abbey, be alerted that Smith utters a four-letter word - though only after prefacing it with: "I'm going to say something very rude to you now."
Thanks to Hoffman's graceful direction and terrific performances by talented veterans, Quartet is endearing, sometimes even irresistible.
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