“In opera we repeat ourselves.”
In 2012, the middle aged and senior citizen demographic were lucky enough to have two movies hand delivered to their age group: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Amour. Now, while Michael Haneke’s Amour has become a major awards player with numerous critics falling head over heels in love with the tragic tale of life destroying love, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was not far behind for being nearly, if not entirely, the complete opposite kind of movie. Haneke’s Amour is a shocking, depressing, ultra-real examination of love in a couple’s elder years, but Hotel is an absolute blast full of fun-having British performers with winning chemistry and a surplus of charm. Therefore, this demographic will be happy to know that another film has been tailor-made for their enjoyment with a tone reminiscent of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and a release just less than a month into 2013. Dustin Hoffman’s Quartet, starring Hotel’s supporting actress Maggie Smith, is an incredibly tender and lite affair. It’s a surface-level film that doesn’t need to go any deeper, one with a talented lineup of veteran Brits and just the right stuff weaved within that will make your parents, and grandparents, adore every minute of it.
Beecham House is a retirement home for musical veterans. Though their days of fame are long behind them, they still try to get what they can out of the talent they possess by performing at charity events and fundraisers to keep the house on its feet. One day, a new resident arrives in the form of Jean Horton (Smith), a diva and beloved opera singer of yesteryear. She, like everybody, has grown to a dislikable age and has joined the ranks of Beecham House. However, her appearance creates a rift amidst the tenants of the retirement home due to her never ending rivalry with another singer, her behavior and resistance to ever sing again, and the potential drama to come from encountering her former husband (Tom Courtenay) who also resides in the home.
If there’s an old British actress more reliable than Maggie Smith (other than Helen Mirren and Judi Dench), you may be hard pressed to find them. The veteran performer nabbed a great gig as Professor McGonagall in the Harry Potter franchise (my first exposure to her) and then continued immediately onto a starring role in PBS’ Downton Abbey. With her supporting turn in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel earning immense buzz and just narrowly missing the Oscar nomination, plus the third season of Abbey in the mix and the release of Quartet, Maggie Smith is already on her way to being one of 2013’s biggest winners and we haven’t even gotten to February! The actress is beyond talented and as diverse as any performer can get. Her work here is nothing showy, nothing that will get awards attention I’m sure, but it’s an entrancing and wonderful addition to her résumé nonetheless. From the minute she appears on screen and every moment she has thereafter, she holds the viewer’s attention and once again transcends that bridge from “actor-that-is-acting” to “lived-in-performance.” She’s a killer on the screen – big and small – and Quartet proves that she is entering the New Year at the top of her game. Even if the rest of the movie were a worthless mess, she would be the one on her feet dragging it along behind her. Luckily, Smith is in good company and good hands.
Director Dustin Hoffman makes a competent first feature. Having earned his stripes in the business after over thirty years of acting, it was only a matter of time before he dipped his foot into the directing pool. Giving the cinematic treatment to Ronald Harwood’s play, Hoffman never falters or misses the mark, but that isn’t particularly difficult when he’s working with this assembled ensemble. Pauline Collins gives a wonderful performance as a former singer fighting a losing battle with what I assume to be Alzheimer’s. You can tell she is getting worse, but it’s never the focus of the film’s drama. It’s nicely tucked away in the background but gives Collins some sympathetic moments. Tim Courtenay stays rather stoic but shows changes during his dynamic scenes with Maggie Smith. The two have the vibe of a formerly married couple, both filled with sorrow and regret, as well as anger and some confusion. Courtenay also has a great scene to himself when he is teaching a lecture to some aspiring students of music and he attempts to understand the appeal of rap music. He is strictly a classicist, but asks an African American student to explain rap’s popularity, and in response the student delivers him an expository rap verse. But, crowds will be recalling Billy Connolly’s showy performance as the unfiltered Wilf Bond. His trickling Irish brogue makes every crude comment all the funnier and Connolly knack for comedic timing makes him the comic standout. He embraces this archetype happily and I would like to see him appear in more films.
Quartet is a predictable film and one that knows its purpose as lite enjoyment as opposed to a deep character drama concerning the pain of old age. It’s not trying to be the new Amour in any way, nor is it trying to step on The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’s toes; Hoffman’s film is touching and calm, tender at its heart and winning with its characters – that inbred chemistry that marks every British actor is impeccable. It’s not reinventing the wheel of British comedy or setting a new precedent within the filmographies of its actors. It’s a movie for my parents, your parents, and everybody’s grandparents (and fans of Downton Abbey, most likely). Quartet is a joyful British comedy that will surely earn its money off of senior citizen discount tickets, or will be the movie that you find your mom and dad asleep to on the couch after you go about gallivanting late into the night.
Review by Mike Murphy