Quartet (United Kingdom, 2012)

January 09, 2013
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Quartet Poster

Quartet is as safe, conventional, and uncontroversial a film as one could imagine. The straightforward screenplay is elevated considerably by a series of sterling performances. If one wanted to bolster an argument about the importance of acting to a lightweight drama, this movie could be Exhibit A. There's little in the basic narrative to grasp and hold the viewer's attention, but the way the lines are delivered and the charisma of the performers lend charm and substance to the overall viewing experience.

Quartet represents the "official" directorial debut of Dustin Hoffman, who did some of the behind the camera work for 1978's Straight Time before handing over the reins to Ulu Grossbard shortly into filming. It would be interesting to know Hoffman's reasons for choosing this project; the result is workmanlike. There's nothing about the movie's style worthy of adulation or disapprobation. Working with screenwriter Ronald Harwood, who penned the play upon which the movie is based, Hoffman successfully "opens up" the setting by setting scenes out-of-doors and allowing the characters freedom of movement.

The story takes place in Beecham House, a retirement home for aging musicians. Three established residents - Reg (Tom Courtenay), Cissy (Pauline Collins), and Wilf (Billy Connolly) - are surprised by the arrival of diva Jean Horton (Maggie Smith), who once was a frequent collaborator until fame and fortune lifted her beyond their immediate circle. There are unresolved issues between Jean and Reg, who were once married and parted as a result of Jean's infidelity. Quartet contains two principle components that dovetail with one another: one focuses on Jean and Reg's attempts to reconnect and the other explores a possible reunion of the quartet at a gala concert to celebrate Verdi's birthday and raise money for Beecham House's upkeep. The concert is directed by Cedric Livingstone (Michael Gambon), one of the most cantankerous and no-nonsense of the residents.

One could successfully argue that a film featuring the likes of Maggie Smith and Michael Gambon couldn't be all bad, and Harry Potter fans would agree. However, as good as both of them are, the scene-stealers are Pauline Collins and Billy Connolly. Collins, once nominated for an Oscar for Shirley Valentine and remembered by many for her work in Upstairs, Downstairs, offers a tender, funny portrayal of the good-natured, vulnerable Cissy, who is suffering from either senility or Alzheimer's. Connolly, a character actor who has spent a fair amount of his career on television (and will appear in the second and third chapters of Peter Jackson's The Hobbit), makes Wilf the most energetic and lively character in Quartet. Tom Courtenay's Reg is quieter and more dignified, sort of a Felix to Wilf's Oscar. Many of the supporting parts are filled by real-life singers and musicians. The most notable of these is Dame Gwyneth Jones.

Perhaps the biggest challenge faced by Hoffman was how to handle the climactic singing performance. The cast was chosen largely because of their thespian abilities and, although singing may not be beyond them, none has a voice suited to opera. The obvious approach might have been to voice-dub the actors but, given the tendency of that method to skew toward cheesiness and unintentional comedy, Hoffman wisely avoided it. Hoffman's solution works, although one could argue that it mutes the effectiveness of the final scene.

Quartet is a pleasant motion picture, a nice diversion for a winter's evening out. Originally slated for a December release, it was moved out of the Oscar stampede into the calmer wilds of January. This new opening date may help it find an audience. A writing professor once told me that, no matter how clich├ęd a plot may be, if the characters are real, the story won't feel stale. In large part due to the investment of Quartet's fine cast, this is an example of that principle proving true. For those looking for a film with a silver-haired cast, Quartet is more satisfying than last year's uneven The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, although the locations are not as unusual. The movie won't win many awards but, with its mix of understated humor and light pathos, it's the kind of production viewers often connect with.

(Ratings note: This is the first PG-13 narrative feature in a long while to get away with two uses of the "f-word." I guess when a film has an actor of the stature of Maggie Smith uttering the profanity for a director of the stature of Dustin Hoffman, the MPAA is willing to bend its unwritten rules.)

Quartet (United Kingdom, 2012)

Run Time: 1:37
U.S. Release Date: 2013-01-11
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1