There are certain films that want nothing more than to please with a nice, light, charming little story that will entertain. Quartet is that kind of film: gathering some of the best actors still working today to show the young'uns not only how it's done, but that they are still able to hold their own.
At the Beecham House for retired musical artists we find our collection of former singers and musicians thriving at the arts they so love. Among the retirees are randy Scotsman Wilf Bond (Billy Connolly), sweet and growingly senile Cissy Robson (Pauline Collins), and quiet Reginald Paget (Sir Tom Courtenay). They enjoy their quiet years among others of their generation who enjoy a good song and melody.
However, there is a cloud hovering over Beecham House. The home is teetering on financial ruin, but there is a slim hope that the annual Verdi birthday benefit will put the home in the black. The divo of a show director, Cedric (Sir Michael Gambon) pushes his performers to give it their all, but still something is missing, especially since performers either won't do it or are simply too dead or ill to.
Now the Beecham House is getting ready to receive a famous figure, but the residents don't know who. If they did, it would be upsetting, especially for Reg. The newest resident is none other than diva extraordinare Jean Horton (Dame Maggie Smith). Not only is Jean a diva but she also is Reg's ex-wife! While Reg is in a rage at the idea of his one and only coming to live at a home where he has been happy in, Wilf and Cissy are thrilled. The four of them had once recorded a legendary Rigoletto that is still talked about, and the two of them hope that if they can convince both Jean and Reg to participate, they can recreate their quartet and bring enough publicity to make the benefit a smashing success.
Easier said than done, for both Reg and Jean are opposed for a myriad of reasons. For Reg, the only peace he's ever had has been away from his ex, and he still hurts from their split all these years later. Eventually, he softens on the idea but Jean is the one that now is the obstacle. She has never recovered emotionally from the bad notices her career ended on, and fears a return, even one as brief as the benefit, would lead her to receive more humiliation at the hands of her eager detractors.
Eventually, all sorts of things are revealed: Jean still loves Reg despite her ill-thought affair that broke the marriage and Reg has never loved anyone else. Cissy is becoming more and more confused while Wilf continues to hit on the ladies, and, well...if one hasn't figured out how Quartet ends then one hasn't been to many movies now, have they?
Quartet is a light, charming, frothy affair, and as such it should be seen as such. It seeks only to entertain with a light story about how being old does not mean being useless. Far from it, one gets a great delight in watching four great actors show they are far from redundant. We get what I consider rather stereotypical 'old people' situations (one has bladder problems, one is slipping into dementia...is it me or does in every movie featuring a senior citizen of 65 and over have one person who is slowly forgetting everything?). Sometimes I wondered whether Quartet was becoming one of those "aren't old people funny?" type of film, where we were asked to laugh AT rather than WITH them, but while it veered close to that, it didn't slip into full farce.
To the credit of Courtenay, Smith, Connolly, and Collins play their parts smoothly and with great dignity. In particular the acting kudos belong to those who have been dubbed "Sir" and "Dame", for Courtenay and Smith work wonders together as the long-estranged couple who face off not with violent acts or cold silences but as how real people would: a mix of emotions where they both struggle between maintaining their composure and allowing their feelings to burst out.
"I wanted a dignified senility," Reg bursts out. "Fat chance she being here."
We must remember, they ARE British, and in the stiff-upper lip mode too.
Above all things we must remember that it is a comedy, and as such we are allowed to laugh. In particular Gambon, with his dressing-gowns and odd Dumbledore-type headdress, was deliberately over-the-top as the demanding egocentric musical director. Perhaps the quality of Quartet is in that Courtenay by contrast was generally quiet and moreover real. When he was speaking to the young kids about opera, Reg was open about not knowing who Lady Gaga was, but was equally open about how rap and opera were not dissimilar.
Opera, he tells them, used to belong to the regular people who brought rotten vegetables in case of a bad performance. That was before it was taken over by rich people, Reg tells them. Therefore, he at least understands where the kids are coming from, and seeing the kids at the end enjoy beautiful music shows what I have always said: once you expose people to the arts (be it music, Shakespeare, or classic films) people will lose their fear of the unknown and appreciate what makes these things a joy to life.
Dustin Hoffman, in his directorial debut at age 75, shows that being in the Golden Years does not mean one can't try new ventures. He directs his actors wonderfully, allowing them to be funny and serious without slipping into either farce or melodrama. Ronald Harwood, adapting his play, does leave a few threads unfinished. A subplot about randy staff is brought up but then dropped.
Quartet is a light trifle, charming, well-acted and directed, a joyful celebration of life. It's a sweet little film, cute, and in its 98 minute running time a treat to see four great actors show life truly does not stop after sixty.