“Quartet” is a quaint, simple film that takes an unflinching look at life’s later years when the applause has ended, the talent faded and making the most of the years still ahead.
In lesser hands, this glimpse of a future of failing memory and ever-betraying body would just be crushingly depressing, but this ensemble is a lively fun bunch that warrants several curtain calls.
Dustin Hoffman makes his directorial debut and it’s the kind of low-key, but assured work that made me wonder why he hadn’t been doing this sooner. Not every great actor can be even a good director, but his less is best approach behind the camera and confidence in his performers pays off with a touching and fun film that shows the latter years don’t have to be anything but golden.
As they prepare for a benefit concert in honor of Giuseppe Verdi’s birthday, life at Beecham House — a retirement home for musicians — is anything but quiet, but at least it’s melodic. In nearly every room, there’s someone playing an instrument they’ve spent a lifetime perfecting or going through another round of rehearsals under the stern command of the overbearing Cedric (Michael Gambon of the “Harry Potter” franchise).
Wilf (“Brave’s” Billy Connolly in a rascally fun performance) is the life of the house and in between his flirting with the staff and recalling stories of his illicit past, he spends most of his time trying to loosen up his stiff best friend, Reggie (Tom Courtenay, “Doctor Zhivago”). The third member of their little group, Cissy (Pauline Collins), may be battling Alzheimer’s, but she hasn’t forgotten to enjoy every moment of life she can in the interim.
When Reggie’s ex-wife and the group’s former member, Jean Horton (a magnificent Maggie Smith, also of the Potter franchise) arrives and stirs up old feelings, things aren’t nearly as pleasant for Reggie. Jean was used to being the singer of highest renown and is not enjoying retirement — a cruel trick of nature she thinks. For now she’s content being alone and listening to her old records until Cissy and the others decide to reunite the quartet one more time for the concert. But getting the defiant diva to take to the stage may prove more challenging than they thought.
Ronald Harwood adapts his own 1999 play for the big screen so presumably little was lost in the translation. Harwood deftly handles the Beecham ensemble to the point that beyond the four leads, we’re just as familiar with the background characters as well and by the end, we’ve come to find their quirks and idiosyncrasies just as endearing.
In my favorite scene, Reggie speaks to a class of teenagers and attempts to relate opera to hip-hop. The interaction starts off awkwardly as you’d expect, but by the end, both groups find relatable common ground. In a lot of ways, “Quartet” is a more sophisticated; mature romantic comedy, but one that if given a chance will be satisfying for all ages.
“Quartet” is the kind of intimate films we don’t see often beyond independent films. It’s not going to set box-office records, but it’s pleasantly surprising and well worth your time.
Rating: 8 out of 10