[Movies] Quartet (review)

Director: Dustin Hoffman // Starring: Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connelly, Pauline Collins // Plot: Ageing opera singer Reginald Paget (Courtenay) finds the splendour of Beecham House, a home for retired musicians, to be compromised when his prickly ex-wife Jean (Smith) comes to stay. As the houses financial future becomes unclear, Jean does all she can to avoid reuniting with her former quartet members Sissy (Collins), Wilf (Connelly) and, of course, her ex-husband Reggie.

Review: Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut is a sporadically touching adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s 1998 play of the same name. Despite being very much geared towards to a particular demographic, this viewer can attest that he, at the tender age of 21, found much to enjoy in Quartet, although a frustrating lack of focus makes it hard to recommend to audiences at large.

Firstly I feel I should emphasise that, flaws aside, it certainly made for an intriguing cinematic experience. Living in a student town, spying the occasional OAP gliding through WHSmith’s strikes one as a novelty, so you can imagine my irrepressible excitement upon entering a theatre chock-a-block with them. My ultimate “Toto, we’re not Kansas anymore”-moment came just before the screening, however, as a beaming usher commanded our attention with what I assumed was a tool of corporal punishment. “Attention, everyone.” He barked. “Has anyone here left behind a nice shiny blue walking stick?”. Said stick was soon reclaimed by an elderly woman, who was clearly smug at the jealous glances her admittedly fabulous mobility aid had received.

Any initial intergenerational alienation soon dissipated, however, as Harwood’s adapted script has a certain bite to it from the get-go, and wisely devotes most of its zingers to Connelly, who is perfectly cast as lecherous sex-pest-with-a-heart, Wilf Bond. It doesn’t get much raunchier than references to tits and the like, but Quartet gently challenges the supposed wants of its target audience. The films trump card, however, is its exploration of the burgeoning fallibility of its characters, from the sense of gloom the hospitalisation of one of the residents can provoke to the lovable Sissy’s ever-deteriorating memory. These are perhaps inevitable features of a film set almost entirely within a nursing home, but Hoffman realises it with such class that it is at times hard to believe this to be his first feature.

But then there are moments when it this is all too believable. While Hoffman straddles the line between comedy and drama very well, the central romance suffers from a chronic lack of chemistry between Smith and Courtenay. Of course, the scripts refusal to divulge their reason for separating until the final act doesn’t help, testing patience rather than rewarding it with a remotely surprising revelation. There is also a rather bizarre interpolation of rap and a discussion on its legitimacy as a genre of music. A similar – and initially more promising – question is posed with regards to opera but is sadly never expanded on.

The ending, however, is tasteful in its restraint, while the ageing professionals that make up the supporting cast clearly had a ball during the denouements musical flourishes. As the final scene hints towards a hopeful new start for our titular quartet, one cannot help but the think the same of Hoffman’s new path as a director. A promising debut.


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