Friday, December 14, 2012

“Quartet” – Movie Review



This week in the final session of the Fall Semester of my movie class, we saw the British comedy-drama “Quartet”, starring Maggie Smith and directed by Dustin Hoffman.


When a former opera singer moves to a nursing home, she has trouble adjusting – but after the other residents ask her to sing at an upcoming performance, will she consent or will they be disappointed?


Beecham House in England is an old age home for retired musicians; its residents include a number of classical musicians and opera singers, all of whom are in varying degrees of health, both physically and mentally. One sad fact about this institution is that due to the advanced years of its occupants, someone will eventually expire before too long; the upside of this is that it provides an opportunity for someone new to move in – which is exactly how Jean (Smith) wound up being the latest slab of fresh meat. Having years prior left behind her illustrious career as an opera singer, she has decided to make Beecham House her new home.

But hers is not an easy transition – having spent decades as a big star in the opera world, Jean has a reputation for being something of a diva … a rather well-deserved reputation, as it turns out. In denial about her aging and lack of independence, Jean initially refuses to socialize with the other inhabitants of Beecham House, choosing instead to take all of her meals in her room – this despite the fact that she was greeted with cheers and applause by a number of her fellow ex-performers. Not all of those at Beecham House are happy at Jean’s arrival, however – among them is Reggie (Tom Courtenay) – a former lover of Jean’s from the distant past.

Having thoughtlessly broken Reggie’s heart when they were engaged to be married, Jean wound up having a life filled with many men – husbands, both her own and those belonging to other women – while Reggie was so despondent that he never married after that experience. Suddenly finding themselves cohabitating (after a fashion), they are now forced to confront that which originally drove them apart. During this time, the residence is planning an upcoming concert – a yearly gala to celebrate the birthday of famed composer Giuseppe Verdi. What would sell tickets – and raise a considerable amount of money for Beecham House – would be a performance of the Quartet from Rigoletto in which Jean would be a featured singer. With this being one of Jean’s greatest performances, she is immediately asked to participate. But will the fear of having lost her skills at this stage result in her letting down the others or can Jean summon up the courage to join her fellow singers for one last public appearance?


In his directorial debut, Award Winning actor Dustin Hoffman certainly doesn’t embarrass himself with “Quartet”. For that matter, neither does the film’s stellar cast – with Billy Connolly and Pauline Collins leading the way in their roles: he as an unrepentant lothario and she as a septuagenarian suffering from the early stages of dementia. Clearly, this movie is aimed at the same audience that made “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” such a big hit earlier this year – and if that is indeed its intention, it may very well succeed. “Quartet” triumphs on many levels – well-delineated characters, good acting, an interesting story and visually compelling shots (the scenes of the grounds surrounding location referred to as Beecham House being particularly well photographed).

The artfully-told story is multi-layered with a romance, the challenges of aging in a youth-oriented society and the relevance of art as its form changes over time to suit an ever-evolving audience. Although the story takes place almost entirely at Beecham House (it was originally conceived as a stage play before being adapted into a screenplay), it never appears static and maintains a reasonably good pace throughout (it’s just over an hour and a half in length). In spite of having to suspend a reasonable level of disbelief while watching this movie (e.g., How are these characters able to afford such luxurious care?), it never gets in the way enough to deter your enjoyment of “Quartet”.

Hopefully, the film will do reasonably well – it’s professionally done and has a story with considerable heart without appearing mawkish. That said, however, it does feel a bit of a conceit – albeit an understandably necessary one – when we are led to believe that we are going to hear some of the characters singing, but the film cuts away before it occurs. There are, however, a number of singers who do in fact perform – a couple of gentlemen who have what appears to be something of a vaudeville act and one woman who sings opera. The cast includes a number of people who are in fact retired singers and musicians, a few of whom are provided the opportunity to shine brightly in the coda to a brilliant musical career.


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