Starring: Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins, Michael Gambon
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Runtime: 98 mins. Reviewed in Dec 2012
Quartet began as a play on London’s West End. It was written by the prolific Ronald Harwood (Oscar for The Pianist), and directed by Dustin Hoffman, his first film as director (at age 74).
The film is about the elderly for the elderly (an increasing niche market: think The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel). It is beautifully shot in country England. It is full of music, a wide range of classics, opera and instrumental, and some popular English songs like Underneath the Arches. It has a supporting cast of singers and musicians (who are shown in photo with career highlights during the final credits). And it has a star cast at their best. Quoting another song, ‘who could ask for anything more?’.
The location is Beacham House (named after conductor, Sir Thomas Beacham), a home for elderly musicians. During the day, they play their instruments, they sing – but they also have their regrets, their happy memories, but also physical weakness and memories going. Some are haughty, some are genial. All have their eccentricities.
Annually, there is a gala musical event, an opportunity to raise funds for Beacham House to continue. Director is Cedric (pronounced Ceedric), Michael Gambon in full flight playing a kind of variarion of Professor Dumbledore), snobby about classical music, not averse to photo opportunities and to applause and bows.
But it is the quartet themselves who are the focus. The title also refers to the quartet from Rigoletto with which they had had a triumph and which is the request for the finale of the gala.
The four veteran actors who portray the quartet play perfectly off each other. Pauline Collins steals so many of the scenes she appears in. She is Cissie, a singer, who is chatty, scattered and on the way to losing her memory. Billy Connolly plays another singer who has had a stroke which has made him lose some of his inhibitions – though his character makes demands that, while he can offer the rude comment, he has to be more restrained than many of his other screen personas. Connolly does this very well and ingratiatingly.
Tom Courtenay has the serious central role, a singer who is conscious of lost opportunities, of his failed marriage which has haunted him for decades. He has his moods but is kindly – there is a fine scene where he teaches a group of teenagers and makes links between the experience of popular opera and of rap music.
Into their midst comes Maggie Smith, a diva who has been driven by ambition and is humiliated in coming to Beacham House. She has a history with the other members of the quartet. There are clashes, highly emotional at times. But, this is a benign imagining of growing old, a basic niceness underlying the whole film.
There are some funny situations and lines (from Billy Connolly’s innuendo to Maggie Smith’s acerbity), but a lot emotion, pathos and, all the time, music and song. (Busloads of older audiences flocked to the Marigold Hotel; the buses will surely be re-hired for trips to Beacham House.)
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