Far too often, films depict the elderly as either dotty, funny or sick. Oh sure, we might get the occasional wise older person passing on sage advice to some youngster, but that’s still not much more than another brand of stereotype. How many movies can you name where the majority of the cast are over 65, but the main focus isn’t on death, illness — or the characters aren’t some variation on “aren’t they cutest things?” Although they may be out there, they are definitely few and far between. Thankfully, we can count among them 2012’s Quartet, just released on Blu-ray and DVD by The Weinstein Company and Anchor Bay Entertainment.
The premise of the movie is simple enough. Set in a retirement home for musicians, four retired opera singers who had once scored international success together try to reconcile their differences after not seeing one of their members in decades. Three of them have been living in the home, Beecham House for an undetermined time, when the fourth, joins them. Her arrival coincides with the residents preparing their annual fundraising gala. An event upon which the facility depends for its survival.
It turns out two of the quartet, Jean Horton (Maggie Smith) and Reginald Paget (Tom Courtenay) had been briefly married, but had divorced when she confessed to an affair. Although Paget is obviously less than thrilled by the new arrival, the other two members of the quartet, Wilf Bond (Billy Connolly) and Cissy Robson (Pauline Collins) are more than happy to welcome their old friend.
While Paget is able to eventually find it within himself to reconcile with his ex-wife, tensions arise between the four of them when the director of the gala, Cedric Livingston, (Michael Gambon) prevails upon the original three to try and convince Horton to join them for the performance. He’s sure their inclusion in the program would allow the home to charge top dollar for tickets and thereby guarantee another year of survival. However, Horton thinks the idea of four retired opera singers attempting to perform is ridiculous. She has refused to sing publicly for years for that very reason. Her pride won’t let her be seen in public as anything less than the star she once was.
Needless to say there’s nothing really original or overly suspenseful about the plot of the movie. We know everything will turn out for the best in the end; it’s just the way these movies work. However, sometimes, the manner in whitch the story is told matters far more than what it’s about and how it ends, and this story is told beautifully.
One of the wonderful things about Quartet is that th majority of supporting players are real retired musicians, ranging from music hall performers and former orchestra players to opera singers. They not only bring credibility to the movie’s musical numbers, they provide for a unique depiction of the elderly, like nothing you’ve ever seen on the big screen before. Instead of shots of people sitting around in wheel chairs playing bingo or staring off into space, we walk into rooms filled with vital, animated and active people. Sure they might have to use a cane or a stair lift to get around, but they have more joie de vive than most people half their age.
Watching the four leads work is a joy. They play their characters with an understated elegance which only experience and talent make possible. The irrepressible Bond flirts with pretty nurses and staff and arranges to have pints of whisky hidden on the grounds for him and his friends, Connolly brings a wonderful humanity to what could have easily been a caricature of a dirty old man. Instead we see a man who refuses to believe aging means you must stop enjoying life.
Collins has the far more difficult task of playing a woman in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s. She imbues Robson with a sweetness and innocence that makes her a delight to watch, and those moments when she loses her way all the more poignant. The times her face goes slack when she loses track of where she is and what she’s supposed to be doing are some of the most powerful in the film. Collins does a magnificent job of not telegraphing when an episode is about to begin making her moments of dissociation all the more moving when they occur.
As the former married couple Horton and Paget, Smith and Courtenay are wonderful. Watching Smith rehearse what she’s going to say to him on the drive to the home in preparation for their first meeting gives us some indication of the state of their relationship. Throughout the movie Smith does a wonderful job of gradually exposing the wounded and regretful person hidden beneath her pride. Courtenay’s Paget has held on to his hurt and betrayal for so long it’s difficult for him to let go of them. However, the reason he’s held on to those feelings is he never stopped loving her. Once they are in each other’s company again we watch him gradually warm up to her until he’s able to let down his defences. The way the two actors gradually develop the relationship between their characters again is a thing of beauty to watch and as fine an example of acting as you’ll see on screen for a good while.
First time director Dustin Hoffman has done a wonderful job of staying out his actors’ way. In the special features included on the disc the actors talk about working with him and say the main direction he gave them was to “stop acting”. In other words to be as natural as possible in their performance. By trusting them and their instincts to deliver the performances required to make this movie work, he ensured each of his leads, and the supporting cast as well, gave some of the best and least affected performances I’ve seen from any group of actors in ages.
Other bonus features included in the disc were brief little asides about the story, the music used in the movie, and comments from the actors on the movie itself. One of the most telling comments came from Smith when she said how rare it was to find a romantic comedy with a cast in this age range and what a treat it was to perform in. In fact the actors were pretty much uniform in their appreciation for the way movie depicted aging and older people. In his interview Gambon makes a point of saying people in nursing homes or facilities for the aged should make a point of behaving irresponsibly.
This is only about the third or fourth Blu-ray disc I’ve watched and the quality of both audio and picture continue to amaze me. The music, so important to this movie, is beautifully reproduced, especially those times when the cast themselves are singing or performing. Even more impressive is the balance between incidental music and dialogue making it easy to hear the actors. One might think without special effects or action high definition is wasted on a movie. However, there’s a depth of field to the images on screen which brings everything alive and makes the world depicted even more believable.
Quartet is a wonderfully acted, intelligently written and carefully directed movie which has made the transition to the home screen beautifully. It not only is a wonderful story about friendship, love and the passions music can generate, it reminds audiences just because a person is old doesn’t mean they have nothing left to contribute or can’t have a rich and diverse life. My mother will be turning 80 in July and she just returned from a two week trip to Europe which saw her travel through France and Spain and currently her biggest worry is finding a publisher for her book on Romanesque art. It was nice to see a movie which recognizes she’s not a rarity.