Film review: Quartet
Date Posted: 09.01.2013
Directed by Dustin Hoffman. Starring Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Pauline Collins, Sheridan Smith, Andrew Sachs 12A cert, general release, 98 min.
The old-timers triumph in this corny but entertaining geezer drama, writes DONALD CLARKE
It’s all Best Exotic Marigold This and The King’s That these days. After half a century of directing all its wares towards young idiots, the movie industry finally seems to have discovered older people. Of course, they haven’t changed their ways all that much. Despite being based on a play by the venerable Ronald Harwood, Dustin Hoffman’s belated directorial debut is every bit as formulaic as the average teen movie.
You’ve been here before. A bunch of old gits come over all incorrigible before eventually reaching an accommodation with mortality. Young people fail to understand. Maggie Smith stares angrily down her nose and delivers various acerbic putdowns. Eventually one of the characters – it’s Smithy again – says “fuck” and we all swoon at her age-inappropriate daring.
Well, the clichés are there for a reason. Audiences appreciate an appointment with the predictable. For all its yawning cosiness, Quartet proves hard to dismiss out of hand. Half a dozen old (some of them very old) friends are given a chance to work through their creaky old routines and most manage to justify the affection we still hold for them.
Quartet is set in a strangely luxurious, absurdly well-appointed retirement home for classical musicians. If we could all look forward to such comfort in our twilight years, death would lose a significant amount of its notorious sting.
Anyway, as the film begins, three former members of a vocal quartet are exercising various one-note character traits. Billy Connolly is an impertinent old rogue with what we used to call “an eye for the ladies”. Pauline Collins is the increasingly dotty, permanently loveable one. Tom Courtenay’s character seems most heavily weighed down by the pressures of passing time.
Their calm rituals of moaning and tea drinking are disrupted when Dame Maggie, Tom’s old flame, arrives at the home to begin her own slide towards eternity. Does Maggie play a naïve, joyous, life-enhancing beam of sunlight whose only thought is to spread warmth throughout the kingdom? She does not.
As always these days, Smith spends half the film examining her companions as if they were maggots burrowing their way through her morning muffin.
Somebody suggests that the quartet might like to reform and sing one of their most loved numbers. There is much muttering as we drift towards an expected triumph in the last act.
One could spend the time remaining from now until one’s own death detailing the numerous flaws in Quartet. The scene in which Courtenay connects with a “young person” by comparing opera to rap is so painfully misjudged one half suspects it might be some sort of sophisticated meta-joke. Connolly may be closing in on 70 but – despite occasional unconvincing “spells” – he seems far too fit and nimble to be taking up space in an old person’s home.
The whole project feels just a little patronising towards the older demographic. Aren’t they quaint? Aren’t they naughty? Aren’t they cheeky? Maybe so. But a tad more nuance would have been nice.
And yet. Quartet is so filled with warmth and good will that it is ultimately impossible to hate. Hoffman plays no tricks with his camera. He merely winds up the actors and allows them to spin about the set like charming Victorian clockwork toys. The end result looks a little bit like high-end British television: performances are prized more highly than philosophical insights or visual flair.
“Can you really resist Collins, Connolly, Courtenay and Smith (with a bit of Gambon thrown in for good measure)?” the tagline doesn’t really ask. It’s a close run thing. But the answer has to be a resigned “no”.
Source : Irish Times Culture section