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30 Jan 2013

Quartet

This film manages to put a positive spin the physical, private, and social aspects of ageing without sugar-coating the fact that it can be a wretched business.

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Director: Dustin Hoffman

Screenplay: Ronald Harwood; based on the play by Ronald Harwood

Cast: Maggie Smith, Billy Connelly, Tom Courtenay, Pauline Collins, Michael Gambon, Sheridan Smith

"Old age is a wretched business. Once you have a problem, it can only get worse ever so slowly, day after day. And then, it all ends." Michael Haneke's Amour offers a bleak assessment of old age, which its protagonists take as a mandate to face their problems with utmost dignity, preferring to die alone in exquisite loneliness. Dustin Hoffman's Quartet prescribes just the opposite — that old age, however debilitating, is meant to be faced on with irreverence, in the company of friends.

As with the stage play by Ronald Harwood, Beecham House is a retirement home where all musicians go in their old age. They receive the best care available in a sprawling country mansion furnished with rooms of all sizes where they can still keep going at their musical instruments (which makes you think if this film exists in an alternate Britain where a musicians' union takes care of such things). In return, everyone gets to perform something for the annual fundraising for the home on the anniversary of Verdi’s birthday.

It looks like a very simple deal until the home's new arrival (Maggie Smith as a former opera star) is reluctantly gang-pressed into a reunion with three of her former collaborators (all of whom coincidentally are at Beecham House) to put on an encore of their legendary performance from decades ago.

While the history and dynamics between these characters form the narrative pulse driving the film forward and personal idiosyncrasies that each character adopts to deal with the reality of retirement and ageing, it is the spectre of old age that looms behind the drama and comedy of Quartet. Musicians, it should be noted, are the most affected by ageing. All musicians age like fine wine but beyond a certain age, the body and its muscles loses its suppleness, motor skills deteriorate, and memory fails. Your voice gets creaky, your fingers can't move as fast, and you can't remember what you're supposed to play — and you, a formerly recognised musician with a decent career, have to perform once a year way past your prime?

Quite like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel before it, the film manages to put a positive spin the physical, private, and social aspects of ageing without sugar-coating the fact that it can be a wretched business. In this sense, Quartet is a reassuring counterpart to Amour.

Reader's Comments

1. 2013-08-09 11:51
Whilst I agree with most of the reviewers' comments, I found a lot wrong with "Quartet" which I only recently saw for the first time.

First, the key plot point of the home requiring a major fund-raiser to keep going. Not an unusual requirement, but Beecham House looks far more like a grand manor than an old folks' home. If it had financial problems, then surely one little 'end of term' concert in front of no more than around 30 people would be likely to raise only a fraction of the money needed to put it to rights! Yet, by the time the curtain had come down, all the required money had, we are told, been raised!

Secondly, some of the characterisation. Sir Michael Gambon is one of Britain's finest actors, but his over-acting (no doubt prompted by director Dustin Hoffman) made his character into nothing more than a caricature.

As for the other cast members, as always with these fine actors there are fine performances. But it strains the imagination to believe that opera singers - divas or not - behave as melodramatically in real life as they sometimes must on stage. It made me think that after a life spent in the company of fellow musicians, retirement to a home exclusively for musicians must be some sort of operatic hell. As with life in general, diversity surely helps not only to keep ones' feet on the ground - but also to maintain one's sanity.

The comparison with "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" is very obvious. That film benefitted greatly from the diverse background of its characters. "Quartet", in my view, suffers from that lack of diversity.
Comment edited on 2013-08-09 11:52:25

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