Retired classical musicians try to save their retirement home from financial ruin by pulling together a glorious annual gala in Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut. When former operatic grande dame, Jean Horton (Maggie Smith), arrives at Beecham House, residents try to persuade her to rejoin their famous quartet. But the plans are complicated by a troubled history between the performers and heartache between Jean and her ex-husband, Reggie (Tom Courtenay).
Based on Ronald Harwood’s stage play of the same name, Quartet is heartwarming and lovable but not entirely plausible. Quartet’s home for retired classical musicians – played here by the grand Hedsor House, Buckinghamshire – represents a retirees’ dream. Its magnificent size, immaculate grounds and opulent decor are wholly unrealistic but deliciously appealing.
Maggie Smith has so far been nominated for Best Actress (Comedy or Musical) at the 2013 Golden Globes for her role as the lonely and proud Jean. Smith gives a strong and moving, yet predictable, performance that explores the pain of moving forward and leaving dreams behind. But as Quartet’s lead, Jean is the least likely resident of Beecham House. Her only physical weakness is the need for a hip replacement, yet despite this, Jean covers much ground on her walking stick, speeding along at a great pace and leaving us to wonder why she has moved in.
Meanwhile, Pauline Collins convinces as Cissy who struggles with short-term memory loss. Collins gives us a positive character, unaware of her rapid deterioration, making Cissy’s situation all the sadder. As Cissy’s friends observe her decline, Collins provides some of Quartet’s most poignant moments.
Quartet’s greatest strength is the quality of its performances and Tom Courtenay steals the film as the emotionally tormented Reggie. Courtenay’s understated performance highlights some of the subtler signs of aging – a once sharp mind now dawdling over its choice of words – and stands out as the most astute portrayal of later life. Courtenay excels during the plot’s brief jaunt into the world of rap, as Reggie attempts to explain opera to a class of college students in a scene that neatly avoids sugary cliche.
Quartet’s myriad of supporting characters are similarly well cast. Michael Gambon puts in a superb effort as the wonderfully eccentric and frequently volatile gala director, while Billy Connolly generates much of Quartet’s comedy, bringing warmth and heart to lecherous ladies’ man Wilf, whose lascivious character is made believable by references to his earlier love affairs.
As Quartet shuffles along, subplots quickly pop-up and disappear, while the love story between Jean and Reggie takes centre stage, overshadowing the financial jeopardy of the retirement home. This makes for a strange and somewhat disappointing finale that dodges the final spectacle in favour of a much smaller, but ultimately moving, conclusion.
A quality cast elevate Quartet from sugary and sentimental to moving and poignant. There are plenty of laughs to be had here and obvious gags – such as outbursts of swearing from this respectable set of characters – are made to work by personalities who are inescapably appealing. In a similar vein to 2012’s Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Quartet is both lighthearted and charming. Watch the trailer below.
VERDICT: ✭ ✭ ✭ ✩ ✩ 3/5
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