By Gary ‘Figaro’ Murray

Starring Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Billy Connolly and Pauline Collins

Written by Ronald Harwood

Directed by Dustin Hoffman

Running time 98 min

MPAA Rating PG-13

Selig Film Rating Cable


2012 has been a better year for senior citizens in the movies.  The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Hitchcock showed that older people can have an impact on their lives and society.   The latest to take on the world of the aged is Quartet.

The story of Quartet is based on the Ronald Harwood play that ran in the West End of London in 1999.  The work is centered on an old musician’s home, a place where opera singers and musicians go to die.  Every year on Verdi’s birthday (Oct 10) the residents stage a concert.  The home is in dire need of finances.

Reggie (Michael Gambon) and Wilfred (Billy Connolly) are friends and former co-stars on the stage.  They banter with each other but have a deep respect for each others talents.  They both watch Cecily (Pauline Collins) another former singer who seems to be loosing her mind bit by bit. 

Everything in the home comes to a stop when a new resident moves in.  Jean (Maggie Smith) was a diva singer, world-famous and now totally broke.  She, along with the other three, was part of a quartet of singers who made history with a recording many years ago.  Very soon everyone realizes that if these four would perform again at the October 10th concert, it could save the home.  So it becomes “let’s put on a show” time.

The problem is that Jean and Reggie were once married.  There is a lot of bad blood between the two and Reggie has been loathsome to forget.  Also, Jean believes that her best days are behind her and she does not want to destroy her reputation by putting on a bad show in her old age.  Another complication is that Cecily may or may not be able to function at a performance level.  And lastly, Wilfred just wants another roll in the sack with a young woman before he leaves this mortal coil.

Any person who has seen a movie or a play knows exactly where all these plot threads are going to end up.  There are few surprises in Quartet, which is not a bad thing.  In a fast-paced world that cinema has become, sometimes it is good to take a slower beat to get to the end of the journey.

Quartet is directed by Dustin Hoffman and the actor shows that he can be just as effective behind the lens as he has been in front of it.  He captures different elements of aging with a subtle grace that only a master thespian could bring to the proceedings.  He never tries to overpower his cast with fancy camera angles and impressive dolly moves.  Playing it smart, the camera is used more as a ‘capture of the image’ than a ‘tool of obtuse storytelling’. 

The problem with Quartet is the story it tells.  Though heartfelt and believable, the film just drags along without any fire in the belly.  We never get a sense of pace in the work and even at a scant 90 minutes, the film feels long.  He would have been better off to expand on the world of the play and give some more life to the proceedings.    

Maggie Smith is a brilliant performer but this is not her most brilliant work.  One has to believe a lot to believe that this gravel voiced actress could be a songbird diva.  While she holds the audience attention with her abilities, one never believes that she is an opera singer. Pauline Collins fairs much better in the secondary role.  She goes from scatter-brained to obviously sick without losing any sympathies with the audience.  The grace she shows with this disease is heart breaking and honest.

Michael Gambon comes across with a subtle grace.  The actor is little known to American audiences but this role should get him some stateside notice.   Billy Connolly steals every scene he is in and looks oddly out of place as a senior citizen.  He is one of these classic comics, never the old guy still struggling to get the right line to the comedy audience.  He just nails this part.

The most enjoyable part of Quartet is the supporting roles done by some of the most famous opera performers to walk the hard wood floors.  The background actors are on hundreds of recordings that have graced thousands of turntables over the years and it is a joy to see these seldom recognized performers get moments to shine.

The problem with growing old is that it seems to happen in the shadows.  We whisk away senior citizens to retirement villages and homes where they wither away and disappear.  Quartet shows that these people are valuable, important and still meaningful in society.  While it is not a great movie, it is an important issue that is brought up.  After you see this film, you will want to go and hug your grandma. 


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