Starring: Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins, Michael Gambon, Sheridan Smith
Rating: PG-13, and rather stupidly, for brief strong language
Strong ensemble cast highlights gentle drama about second chances
By Derrick Bang
Enterprise film critic
Music fills almost every frame of “Quartet,” whether created vicariously by this delightful story’s many talented characters, or delivered via Dario Marianelli’s evocative score, as a means to augment a reflective or dramatic moment.
Dustin Hoffman’s thoroughly engaging directorial debut, working from Ronald Harwood’s adaptation of his own stage play, is another charming — if occasionally bittersweet — reminder that life need not end at 60, 70 or even 80. We’ve seen quite a few such films recently, and while it’s not true that Maggie Smith has been in all of them, she certainly dominates this one.
And that’s no small thing, given the cluster of scene-stealers with whom she shares the screen.
She stars as Jean Horton, a once-celebrated opera vocalist fallen on hard times, whose career is naught but a fading memory; she now must swallow her pride and accept government-supported lodging at Beecham House, a retirement home for musicians. But we don’t meet her right away; Harwood first introduces us to the celebratory warmth and magic of Beecham itself, which echoes morning to night with the rich sounds of pianos, strings, woodwinds and quite a few other orchestral instruments, along with plenty of singing.
Beecham’s residents are a bit more a-flutter than usual, because they’ll soon be performing in the retirement home’s annual fundraiser, timed to celebrate the birthday of famed opera composer Giuseppe Verdi. The event is being helmed by the imperious Cedric Livingston (Michael Gambon), a fussy, fusty martinet who lounges about in day robes and barks commands like a traffic cop.
Contrasting Cedric is Reginald (Tom Courtenay), a calm, quiet and emotionally withdrawn scholar who gives occasional lessons in opera history to local teenagers. Harwood grants us a glimpse of one such session, and it’s utterly enchanting; we expect poor Reggie to be overwhelmed by these kids, but in fact his gentle but authoritative delivery holds their attention — and ours — as he considers the intriguing similarities between opera and rap.
Reggie’s best friend is Wilf (Billy Connolly), a sly, randy goat forever trying to make time with Beecham’s much younger doctor/administrator, Lucy Cogan (Sheridan Smith). Actually, Wilf is equal-opportunity; he also flings passes at his peers and the various nurses and staff members. One suspects that he wouldn’t quite know what to do if somebody took him up on such an amorous offer … then again, he’d clearly have a good time working it out.
Reggie and Wilf customarily share their meals with Cissy (Pauline Collins), a bright-eyed, effervescent bundle of energy who — sadly — is beginning to tiptoe down the road toward dementia. Sometimes we see the woman who must have captivated audiences as a performer: quite bubbly and flirtatious. Then, unexpectedly, she simply disappears into another region, often a fragment of her past pretending to be the here and now.
Collins handles this delicate role superbly. At first, we assume Cissy is merely absent-minded; we then realize that she spends far too much time enclosed within ear buds, wholly absorbed by the “somewhere else” that music seems to transport her.
Despite the obvious propensity for galloping egos, harmony reigns in Beecham … at least, until Jean shows up.
Smith’s arrival at this facility is a masterpiece of silent drama, with poor Jean flinching at every new sight and sound, during the drive up the grounds, like a frightened bird being stalked by some unseen predator. In fairness, this could be the usual initial reaction; Reggie, Wilf and Cissy might have been just as apprehensive, back in the day, before adjusting to what has become a comfortable routine.
Jean, however, isn’t ready to be agreeable; she isn’t even willing to socialize, insisting that her meals be delivered to her room. Worse yet, she has contentious “history” with Reggie, who is furious to learn of her arrival, angrier still that Dr. Cogan didn’t warn him about it. Details are slow to come, but this much is immediately obvious: Somewhere along the way, Jean broke his heart. And time has not healed that particular wound.
To Cedric, though, Jean’s presence is the answer to a prayer. Years and years ago, Reggie, Jean, Wilf and Cissy shared the stage during a still-celebrated opera production; having them together again, reviving the performance that cemented their collective fame, means being able to charge premium prices for the upcoming gala … and therefore increases the chances of a box-office take large enough to keep Beecham afloat.
Alas, this proves unlikely not only because of Reggie’s hostility, but also because Jean has abandoned singing. Performance stress and competition with her peers — one of whom, the regal Anne Langley (Gwyneth Jones), also resides at Beecham — prompted Jean to flee, almost in terror, from the demands of her own career. But this isn’t something she can admit to anybody, and thus she behaves with waspish aloofness toward everybody else in the retirement community.
And as we well know from “Gosford Park,” “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” eight Harry Potter movies and three seasons (and counting!) of television’s “Downton Abbey,” nobody can deliver a tart line better than Maggie Smith. Jean’s frosty jabs are to die for.
They’re also a self-defense mechanism, and of course we understand this immediately. The uplifting, resuscitating power of music notwithstanding, Beecham House can’t completely conceal what it actually is: the final curtain call for these troupers. Many (most?) of these people are present because they’ve already lost husbands, wives and lovers: the people who’d be caring for them elsewhere, under ideal circumstances.
Farewells obviously are a constant occurrence, and Harwood doesn’t let us forget that, either.
The softly developing drama unfolds in a rhythmic manner, Hoffman often interrupting — or punctuating — intimate encounters with exuberant rehearsals or spontaneous recitals. Harwood uses Jean’s character to stress his story’s key moral: Some of life’s cruel twists cannot be changed, as with Cissy’s deepening dementia. But our self-imposed constraints — withdrawal, apprehension, fear — can be overcome … and should be.
And we marvel at the cleverness with which Harwood has developed these four characters. Reggie initially seems the wise one, but in fact he’s shackled by his own bitterness; we eventually recognize the long-suppressed pain that fills his eyes and constricts his movements, once Jean appears. The flip, seemingly superficial Wilf actually is the perceptive nurturer; pay close attention to the way Connolly hovers protectively over Cissy, or the understated camaraderie that always cuts through Reggie’s hardened exterior.
Cissy, in turn, remains this group’s luminous heart, despite her tendency to drift. The mere thought of completely losing her actual self is shattering. Collins’ performance is every bit as subtle, Cissy’s emotional unpredictability every bit as compelling, as Smith’s handling of Jean.
Hoffman’s directorial approach is perhaps too leisurely, or Harwood’s screenplay a bit too sparse; the core quartet and primary supporting characters — Cedric, Dr. Cogan — obviously would have held audiences rapt during a live stage production, but this film would benefit from opening up, to allow more time with Beecham’s other assorted residents and staff members.
Be sure to linger during the closing credits, as now-and-then photos confirm that Hoffman filled Beecham House with celebrated talents who’ve led long and glorious stage and opera careers.
It’s the perfect coda to a thoroughly charming little drama.
— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at http://derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com