It would be easy to dismiss a film like Quartet on hearing a brief synopsis: pensioners try to save their retirement home by putting on a show. It’s a bit like the most recent Muppets movie, but swap Kermit the Frog for Tom Courtenay and Miss Piggy for Maggie Smith. But to consider it as fluffy Sunday afternoon ‘senior citizen cinema’ would be to do it a great disservice.
Cissy (Pauline Collins), Wilf (Billy Connolly), and Reg (Tom Courtenay), once members of an operatic quartet, now live at a retirement home for the musically gifted. When the world-renowned fourth member of the group, Jean (Maggie Smith), moves to the home old rivalries are stirred up, old wounds are reopened, and a big question is raised: will Jean rejoin the quartet and sing Rigoletto at the gala concert? My goodness the tension is unbearable.
The main plot is a bit hokey, and certainly nothing new, but when the film is considered as a whole, the central storyline is not important at all. What makes this, Dustin Hoffman’s first outing as a director, remarkable, are the performances, and the incredible heart behind them.
Maggie Smith and Tom Courtenay are thoroughly convincing as old flames Jean and Reg, with the years of unspoken bitterness and regret painted on both of their faces as they are reunited for the first time in years. Maggie Smith of course attained legend status as Lady Grantham in Downton Abbey,and though she may not get as many caustic one-liners to deliver in Quartet, she certainly retains the punch and force of will from that character.
Billy Connolly is a class act, managing to keep sex-obsessed Wilf on the side of funny rather than sleazy, but it is Pauline Collins who gives the standout performance as Cissy. At first she just seems a bit dizzy, but the forgetfulness and confusion progress in increasingly heartbreaking scenes.
The themes of lost love, of family, of self doubt, pride, and of trying to come to terms with one’s place in the world carry across the generations, and to be able to pull all this off while also being very funny is quite an achievement. In addition to this, the rosta of stars from the classical music and theatre worlds is quite remarkable (make sure to stay for the credits for more information on the supporting cast), and the music is, as to be expected, wonderful.
Sweet without being saccharine, and moving without being manipulative,Quartet is a really lovely film. Now go and hug a pensioner, and maybe take them to the opera to say thank you.
PS. Don’t judge it by the awful trailer. It makes it look like the lame cheesy film you probably expect it to be.