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February 7, 2013
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February 7, 2013

Movie Curiosities: Quartet

Charming

I know I promised a blog entry this weekend, but life — as it so often does — has intervened. Midterms approach and my weekend has been shot. I swear this will be the last Saturday class I ever take.

Anyway, I need to get this weekend’s blog entry done early. Luckily, there’s a film out right now called Quartet that comes highly recommended by people whose opinions I occasionally pretend to respect. From what I understand, this film is most notable as the directorial debut of one Dustin Hoffman. On the one hand, Hoffman is a talented and prolific actor with a long and storied career in Hollywood. On the other hand, it seems like his career has been on autopilot since Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium in 2007, and he still argues loudly to anyone who will listen that Ishtar is an underrated classic. From where I’m sitting, this could go either way.

Of course, it helps that Hoffman has collected a top-notch cast for this picture. Headliners include Maggie Smith, Billy Connolly, Michael Gambon, and a bunch of other old British greats. I get the distinct impression that this film wasn’t made with my demographic in mind, but then, neither was Amour. And much like that picture, this one turned out to be a pleasant, if flawed, little surprise.

The picture takes place in Beecham House, a rest home that caters specifically to retired musicians. All the greatest and most beloved musical artists in the UK apparently live there, yet the house can’t seem to bring in enough revenue to stay afloat. Instead, the residents have to organize an annual fundraising gala in which they sing and play music onstage, hoping to sell enough tickets for the house to stay open another year.

Yes, this is one of those cliched narratives that builds up to a climactic talent show. I can feel you all drifting away as I type this, and I wouldn’t blame you, but bear with me.

As the title implies, there are four main characters in this film. There’s Cissy Robson (Pauline Collins), an adorably senile old woman whose brain-to-mouth filter has long since rotted away. There’s Wilfred “Wilf” Bond (Billy Connolly), a degenerate rascal who’ll hit on any woman with a pulse.

Most importantly, we have Tom Courtenay and Maggie Smith. They play Reginald Paget and Jean Horton, a couple of former opera stars who were married for all of nine hours. She thoroughly broke his heart and he resolutely left her in the past, so of course it’s incredibly awkward when Jean comes to live at Beecham partway through the first act.

Now, all four of these characters were very close colleagues once upon a time. In fact, all four of them sang together in a performance of “Rigoletto” that was so famous and highly-regarded that a CD recording of it was recently re-issued. Naturally, this means that if all four of them reunited to perform the Rigoletto quartet at the fundraising gala, they could potentially attract enough donations to last Beecham House for quite some time. Unfortunately, Reginald still carries an overpowering grudge against his ex-wife, and Jean is too proud to risk falling below the standards of her younger self.

The stakes in this film are rock-bottom, the characters are almost almost entirely two-dimensional, the narrative is cliched, and the plot is pathetically predictable. Yet in spite of all that, this film somehow miraculously works. Let me count the ways.

First of all, the film succeeds in walking a very fine line with its perspective toward age and obsolescence. There are a lot of scenes in which the characters’ age and senility are played for laughs, but that isn’t the movie’s central focus, nor is it taken to any wacky extremes. It’s heavily acknowledged that the characters aren’t nearly as mobile or as virile as they used to be, and that any one of them could drop dead or get into a serious accident at any moment, yet that isn’t the focus of the movie either. No, the characters in this film seem to know that they’re getting old, and they accept all the infirmities that come with old age, yet they’re still determined to make the most of what time they have left without overstepping their physical and mental boundaries. It’s not an easy attitude to describe, but it feels refreshingly honest and true.

(Side note: I’m sure it helps that Hoffman himself is north of 75. If it was anyone younger behind the lens, I strongly doubt the sincerity would have shone through.)

Likewise, the film is very nuanced in its depiction of the relationship between age and youth. Most films would either profess that there’s no school like the old school and/or that anything obsolete is doomed to be cast aside in favor of something new. This film doesn’t really take either stance. Instead, it seems to say that there’s plenty of room for the old and the new to coexist.

For instance: There’s a scene early on in which Reginald is giving a music lecture to a class of high schoolers. As part of the lecture, he gives a surprisingly rational and dispassionate comparison of opera with rap. Afterwards, one of the students provides an equally level-headed argument, and he does it in favor of an improvised rap. The whole scene was very clever and wonderfully done.

This brings me to one of the biggest reasons why this film works: The writing. The screenplay was adapted by Ronald Harwood from his stage play, and his dialogue is superbly crafted. Though most of the comic relief characters in this film were one-note, it’s amazing how many jokes he could wring out of a single note. Granted, none of the humor was laugh-out-loud hilarious, but the jokes were all funny enough to be endearing. It takes a tremendous amount of skill to play senility for libido without coming off as mean-spirited, but this picture does it from start to finish.

Of course, it also helps that the cast is just superb. These are all very talented actors and they look like they’re having the time of their lives. They’re having so much fun in this breezy little comedy, and their enjoyment is infectious. This does a lot to redeem characters like Cissy and Wilf, both of whom might have gotten annoying after five seconds if not for the actors playing them.

The rest of the supporting cast deserves mention as well. Special kudos are due to Michael Gambon, who plays the egotistical and short-tempered control freak with the impossible task of organizing the gala. It was a surprising amount of fun to watch Gambon play a character full of such impotent rage, though I wonder why he seems to have carried over Dumbledore’s wardrobe for some scenes.

I must also give recognition to Sheridan Smith. She plays Dr. Lucy Cogan, the lovely young woman who runs Beecham House. It’s also worth noting that she’s married, which is great for her sake. This character was a real breath of fresh air, partly because she’s a sane and stable woman who brings a very youthful energy to this home overrun by crazy senior citizens. I also appreciate that Dr. Cogan was able to assert her authority without ever coming off as a harsh “Nurse Ratched” type. In point of fact, she seems like such a competent leader that I’m left to wonder yet again why Beecham House is in such dire financial straits. It’s like the main crisis of this film was totally contrived or something.

Conversely, there’s the matter of Dame Gwyneth Jones. She plays Anne Langley, a very talented prima donna who turns out to be a very fierce rival for Jean. Nothing is done with her. We only see just barely enough of Anne’s comedic interplay with Jean — and just enough of Jones’ incredible singing voice — to appreciate just how badly this character is underutilized. Such a damn shame.

As for the rest of the supporting cast, it’s unbelievably impressive how much talent went into it. The vast majority of tertiary cast members and background actors were bona fide stars in the world of music and theatre. If you don’t believe me, just stay through the credits: The film treats us to pictures of the cast members in their youthful prime while listing their tremendous accomplishments. The music in this picture is wonderful to listen to, and all of this concentrated talent is a huge reason why.

To describe Quartet in one word, the film is charming. It isn’t particularly surprising or creative or profound, but it isn’t trying to be any of those things. It’s just a piece of cinematic fluff, but endearingly so. The humor is very cute — though never laugh-out-loud funny — the subject of age is presented in a uniquely level-headed way, and the actors are all quite enjoyable to watch.

If you’re looking for a good time at the theater in this quality-starved season, this is a film that’s worth consideration. Otherwise, I would absolutely recommend a rental at the very least.

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