By Laurie Coker
I hate getting older. Sure, there are some benefits, like reduced pricing at theatres, AARP membership, IHOP senior meals, and other perks, but I’m not quite there yet. Still it looms. Quartet, starring the irrepressible Maggie Smith, funny man Billy Connelly, lovable Pauline Collins and veteran British actor Tom Courtenay and directed by film legend Dustin Hoffman takes a look at aging from the perspective of “mature”/retired singers and musicians. With this exceptional cast and its colorful ensemble, Hoffman gives his viewers a wonderful take on coming of (old) age and coping with all the angst this entails.
Beecham House, a lovely British country home, offers its musically talented retired residents a place to spend final years. Here they continue performing – in local shows for family, friends and the community, and learn to accept their fate (all our fates). Chatter abounds about the impending arrival of a new resident and the whole house is humming, except perhaps for Reginald Paget (Courtenay), Wilfred Bond (Connolly) and Cecily Robson (Collins) who try to steer clear of the gossip that often infuses the house. This trio, once a successful quartet, ignores the hubbub until they discover that Jean Horton (Smith), their former “fourth” in the quartet and Reginald’s ex, is Beecham House’s surprise arrival. Horton feels degraded for having “once lost her prime’ and moving into the house and the others in the quartet have mixed feelings. Cecily, struggling with lucidity and Wilfred delight at the prospect of having their former operatic collaborator in residence, but Reginald has no fondness for the woman responsible for breaking his heart.
Hoffman, in his directorial debut, working from a screenplay by playwright Ronald Harwood, offers a buoyant hand on what might be a far more serious subject. Even lighter than last years The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, their view of aging makes us laugh more than not. I prefer the more humorous touch and the experience with life’s inevitable final act. Connelly hosted a bit of the Kennedy Center Honors (Hoffman an honoree) and he joked about his role in the film, feeling like he was the lesser actor of the lead cast, but he, too, shines in this – as do Collins and Courtenay.
A character-driven story needs relatable, likable, engaging characters and Hoffman does – both in the well-scripted interchanges and with his cast, including the other quirky, adorable and fun residents of Beecham House. Michael Gambon plays pompous choir director Cedric Livingston, a flamboyant artist, with a huge ego and the reins of the current community production, and he is wonderful. It’s apparent, too, that Hoffman packs his house with true musicians and singers and we are luckier for it. The majority of his cast consists of stars and character actors born in the 1930s and 1940s and Hoffman himself (taking on this new role behind the camera) is a young seventy-five.
While the story is simple, its stars keep it interesting and with Connolly and others infusing “age” appropriate humor into the more serious themes, this visit to the Beecham is a delight. For all its realities about aging, there is light, hope, friendship and love. None of us look forward to growing old, but we can’t stop it. And Hoffman and Harwood, who adapted his own stage play for the screen, take a bit of the sting out of the ordeal, I can honestly say those of us on the other side of midlife appreciate it.
Hoffman fills his feature with interesting older faces, engaging characters and song and with a short runtime; Quartet has all the necessary elements for an entertainingly sweet little drama on aging. I am placing a B+ in my grade book. Because of the coming of “AGE” aspect, Quartet won’t appeal to too many in the under 40 set and that’s a shame, because this is a perfect opportunity to see veteran stars shine! I love the reminder that even if the art (music in this case) lives on, we cannot forget the artists – both gone and those still with us.