Quartet is a quiet drama-comedy that tells the story of four older men and women living at Beecham House, a home for retired musicians, and their struggle to maintain their identities as they reach old age.
Well-known as a prolific and successful actor, Dustin Hoffman decided to step behind the camera for Quartet, his first major directorial debut. Quartet is slick effort that shows a lot of promise of things to come; from the oftentimes beautiful scenery to the briskness of the story, Quartet makes me anxious to see what project the filmmaker will tackle next.
Hoffman’s work is complemented by a strong script from Ronald Hardwood, who also wrote the original stage play of the same name. Some jokes don’t completely hit their mark, leading to awkwardly pregnant pauses where the audience is meant to laugh at the preceding witticisms. Nevertheless, the banter is still quite snappy, and the story seems to have lost very little in its transition from the stage to film.
The ensemble cast is unsurprisingly fantastic. Maggie Smith plays prideful former legend Jean Horton with the strong, brisk elegance we have come to expect from the veteran actor. Tom Courtenay portrays the troubled-but-loyal Reginald Paget, giving a subtle, complex performance that enlivens his character with a mysterious emotional depth.
Billy Connolly is the randy Scot Wilfred Bond, whose coarse sexual antics make him the stand-out scene-stealer in Quartet. Pauline Collins is the memory-challenged Cissy Robson, who seems to have an interesting backstory that is unfortunately never fully investigated. And of course, reuniting with Maggie Smith once again after their run together in the Harry Potter films, Michael Gambon thunders desperately into the picture as he struggles to manage his elderly peers in preparation for the annual Beecham House gala.
While the primary actors in Quartet are wholly untrained in music, Hoffman wisely chose many actual retired musicians to work as extras in the film. This successfully conceals the technical ineptitude of the main cast while making Beecham House a believable home for these aging performers.
Thematically, Quartet seems recall the glory of days past while reaffirming the trends of the present. In one particularly compelling scene, Courtenay’s Reginald attempts to understand the concept of rap from a young black student, while simultaneously conveying the importance of opera to the rest of the class. Beyond the inherent humor in this exchange, there is a clear message of acceptance on both sides of the aisle – the lines of communication between the new and old generations are still open, which is promising considering both demographics have a lot to learn from one another.
What is most notable about Quartet outside of its sound writing, direction, and acting, is its commitment to positivity. The film almost never truly hits a sour note, and maintains an almost euphoric feeling of gaiety throughout without ever becoming overly saccharine; owing in large part to Connolly, Smith, Collins, and Courtenay, the movie feels organic and subtle as opposed to manufactured and cloying. So while the story remains fairly predictable, the climax and ultimate character development still make for a wholly satisfying conclusion to the narrative.
Indeed, the sheer joy of seeing these elderly gentlemen and women work through their difficulties and overcome their very universal fears and damaged pride is an emotional experience. There are two films out right now that endeavor to explore what it means to reach old age, and both use musicians as vehicles for their respective narratives. But I only shed a tear at one of these movies, and I can assure you it was not Amour.
If you have the time, make an effort to see Quartet before it leaves theaters.
Verdict: Movie Win
This article was published in its original form in The Massachusetts Daily Collegian on March 5, 2013.