Maybe it’s just a sign that I’m getting older, but I do draw comfort from movies that don’t rely on superheroes and action heroes to grab my unreliable attention span. While I appreciate Batman as much as the next moviegoer, I find something hugely enjoyable about seeing a film that relies on an excellent cast, a great script, a pleasant setting and some well-thought out hometruths. Quartet, a film directed by a man who has been round the block a bit – Dustin Hoffman, might be continuing the silver-haired retirement tradition of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel but I’ve discovered in me a weakness for this sort of film. Replacing CGI with stunning scenery or, as in this case, a beautiful house and gardens, and populating this environment with actors I’ve watched throughout my life, such movies have a power to weld me to the seat, glass of wine in one hand and a soggy tissue in the other. As I say, I am getting older. Though not that old.
Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Pauline Collins and Billy Connolly are our quartet. They live in Beecham House, a home for retired musicians, which relies for its continued existence on an annual gala in celebration of the birth of Verdi in which the exalted residents of the house perform. The gala is directed by the elaborately-robed Michael Gambon who rules the gala committee with a stern hand, aided by the timid Andrew Sachs. Maggie Smith plays the newest and most famous arrival at the House, Jean Horton, a name to strike fear into the hearts of the other residents especially Reginald Paget (Tom Courtenay) who was once married to the opera star. The marriage didn’t end well. But should our quartet unite for Verdi’s Rigoletto, as they once did years before for stage and disc, then the future of Beecham House would be assured. But Jean Horton has sworn never to sing again.
This reunification of a well-loved operatic quartet is the surface story of the film but there is so much more to it than that. At its heart is a huge theme, described so well by the lascivious Wilf (Billy Connelly) – everyone grows old even though you feel just the same on the inside; you might not like it, you may hate it intensely, but you have to deal with it. Cissy (Pauline Collins) deals with it in her own way, her mind slipping into the past, confused and girlish, while overflowing with friendship and kindness for those around her. Wilf himself carries on as if nothing has changed, flirting outrageously with the house doctor Lucy Cogan (Sheridan Smith) while Reggie had believed he had come to terms with senility gracefully. And then Jean Horton turned up, proving that all wrong.
Dustin Hoffman might be American and its writer Ronald Harwood might be South African but Quartet has a very British feel to it, which is hardly surprising considering it has a cast of British luminaries that have trampled the stageboards for decades. But what gives the film a more universal appeal, though, is that it is constructed within the universe of opera and music. Quite apart from the principal quartet, the film is populated by genuine opera singers and musicians, many of whom contribute their voice or music to the movie. The only downside of this, though, is that it highlights how little our cinematic quartet actually can sing.
The script is full of gems and there are little surprises, musical and otherwise (how I love Trevor Peacock), but for me the thrill here was spending more time at the cinema in front of an actress I have admired for years – Pauline Collins. Star of one of my very favourite films, Shirley Valentine, plus featuring in a programme that I grew up watching, Upstairs Downstairs, Pauline Collins can do no wrong in my eyes and here she is a scene stealer, with Tom Courtenay not far behind at all. Maggie Smith for me, though, is always nothing more or less than Maggie Smith. I find too little variety in her acting – she is my female equivalent of Bill Nighy. His absence here was refreshing. I would like to see other British leading ladies in the Maggie Smith role. These Isles are rich in them. I also found it extremely hard to believe that Maggie Smith could ever have sung opera.
Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed Quartet. As Sheridan Smith says in a poignant speech – their love of life is infectious.